EditorialFor StudentsHealthOpinionScience

Killing straws won’t save the environment, it’s just making you feel less guilty

“‘It’s just one straw’… Said billions of people!”

If you’ve ever eaten on campus, you might have seen this slogan on the inside of one of the napkin boxes or maybe on the slideshow from the newly installed monitor in the USC. Or, you might have noticed that when you order a drink from The Coral Cafe they don’t usually give you a straw unless you ask for one.

Plastic straws are the hot button of environmentalism. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Plastic straws are the hot button of environmentalism. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I noticed this one day last semester when I was waiting in line in the cafe. The student in front of me asked the employee for a straw, who then replied:

“We’re trying to help save the environment and reduce our use of straws, but if you’d like one, I can get you one.”

Then she proceeded to hand him a straw from behind the counter.

By itself, this is unremarkable, but I noticed a few similar things that happened last semester. While waiting in line with my brother at a coffee shop, I noticed they were selling reusable plastic straws and straw cleaners at the counter. Then there was the small set of silicone straws as one of the prizes at Pete’s Auction.

Independently, none of these things have a lot of significance, but together they suggest something. Plastic straws are the hot button of environmentalism.

But are we focusing on the right thing? Why do we seem to hate plastic straws so much? Is it justified? And are there repercussions to getting rid of plastic straws?  

 

Plastic is literal, irredeemable garbage. Because it’s non-biodegradable, plastic just sits there for all eternity and spites your existence as opposed to decomposing. I’m being hyperbolic, but only slightly. In fact, some “disposed plastic materials can remain in the environment for up to 2,000 years and longer,” according to science writer Barry DiGregorio.

While traditional plastics such as these might far overstay their welcome, DiGregorio’s article explains that there are certain types of non-petroleum based “bioplastics” that are less stubborn with their own mortality.

So, why don’t we just switch to bioplastics?

Well, for one thing, petroleum-based plastics are often cheaper. And second, bioplastics can be just as harmful to the environment as regular plastics if they’re not disposed of properly. According to National Geographic, different bioplastics have different methods of disposal such as landfills, recycling and compost.

Obviously, a landfill isn’t optimal, and not everything you recycle actually ends up recycled. But, in the case of compost, the bioplastics need to be properly composted with enough heat to initiate the decomposition process, which doesn’t always happen. This also applies to bioplastics that end up in the ocean. Without proper heat and composting, bioplastics are just as harmful as petroleum plastics.

Despite some of the difficulties in transitioning away from plastic, everyone from businesses to schools to even parts of the government are pushing for going strawless.

The United States’ National Park Service website has a page supporting the Be Straw Free Campaign. The campaign discourages the use of plastic straws by promoting the use of reusable straws and the “offer first policy,” a policy similar to the one at The Coral Cafe.

The page also claims that Americans alone “use 500 million drinking straws every day,” which would “fill over 125 school buses with straws every day. That’s 46,400 school buses every year!”

In July 2018, two plastic straw bans came into place that exploded in both popularity and backlash.

Seattle’s ban on plastic straws was officially put into effect on July 1, 2018. And on July 9, 2018, Starbucks announced the company plans to “eliminate [their] plastic straws globally by 2020.” The Coral Cafe is a vendor of Starbucks, so this would explain their straw policy.

Starbucks and Seattle bans are repeatedly cited as sources of outrage and discourse around plastic straws. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Starbucks and Seattle bans are repeatedly cited as sources of outrage and discourse around plastic straws. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Within days of these two announcements, news and media outlets from all over including NPR, CNN and PBS published features talking with disability rights activists on why the straw ban was potentially harmful. Within the articles, the Starbucks and Seattle bans are repeatedly cited as sources of outrage and discourse around plastic straws.

These articles highlight why plastic straws are necessary for some people with disabilities as opposed to other drinking straws. Some reusable straws are difficult to clean. Others, such as metal, can be dangerous due to how hard they are and their ability to conduct heat. For some people, straws are as necessary to drinking as wheelchairs are to mobility.

As attention was brought to the general public about the need for plastic straws, some people inquired over social media as to what people with disabilities did before plastic straws existed.

“They aspirated liquid in their lungs, developed pneumonia and died,” said Shaun Bickley, a disability justice activist in NPR’s Why People With Disabilities Want Bans On Plastic Straws To Be More Flexible.

Despite the protests from disability rights activists, the push to go strawless continues.

On January 15, 2019, Nestlé announced in a press release that, starting in February 2019, the company would “begin to eliminate all plastic straws from its products, using alternative materials like paper as well as innovative designs to reduce littering.”

However, getting rid of plastic straws is only part of the company’s plan to become more environmentally friendly. In fact, the phrase “plastic straws” is only mentioned once in the entire press release. So, what else does Nestlé plan to do?

Other initiatives mentioned in Nestlé’s press release were:

  • Making “100% of packaging either recyclable or reusable by 2025”
  • “Exploring” various recycling materials that are biodegradable/compostable for areas “where recycling infrastructure does not yet exist and will not be available for some time”.
  • Partnering with Project STOP, a project trying to implement affordable strategies for reducing and eliminating plastic waste in areas of Southeast Asia.

“Addressing the multifaceted issue of plastic pollution requires a holistic view and a well-orchestrated effort,” wrote Christoph Meier in a Nestlé press release in 2019.

The dangers and consequences of plastic have been known for a while, but the response has been disappointingly slow. Plastic is still all around us. Our cafeteria filled with plastic spoons, forks, knives, cups, water bottles, lunch trays and sandwich packages.

It’s easy to ask people to stop using straws. It’s not easy to change their lifestyles. While personal responsibility towards the environment is important, being completely green is not a choice that consumers can fully make until viable plastic alternatives are accessible within a mass market. This hyperfocus on straws comes with negative consequences for some groups, while also soothing environmental guilt for individuals and organizations that should be looking at the whole picture, not just the hole in the top of your cup.

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