Science

Respect the Straw Ban

The anti–plastic straw campaign is looking like a movement, which is good, even if it doesn’t really matter.

A woman cries while bidding farewell to her plastic straw.
Doris Liou

On Monday, Starbucks announced it would eliminate plastic straws from more than 28,000 stores by 2020, becoming the biggest player in a surging movement against straws. The company will slowly start serving all iced beverages except Frappucinos in recyclable plastic sippy cups—and Frappucinos will come with a paper alternative.

It’s another liberal gesture from the company that brought you nondenominational holiday cups, entreaties to discuss racial divisions, and, back in 1996, a $3 weekly pamphlet of magazine takes hotter than steamed milk. As the company’s trademark green straws go out of production, they will also get out of the garbage. Straws are suddenly at the vanguard of a campaign against single-use plastics like bags, bottles, cups, utensils, and wrappers. Because none of these items can be easily recycled, a shocking number wind up in the sea and then inside the bellies, throats, and organs of sea turtles and other large ocean dwellers.

Straw bans took off after a video of an olive ridley sea turtle with a straw wedged up its nose went viral in 2015. Viewed more than 30 million times, the video launched a movement and inspired a leading paper-straw company, Aardvark, to develop a white paper straw printed with green turtles. Alaska Airlines abandoned straws and plastic stirrers in May (the company used 22 million a year); Seattle became the first major city in the U.S. to ban plastic straws earlier this month.

So far, the movement against single-use plastics has focused mainly on plastic bags, a larger and more pernicious plastic foe. Single-use plastic bags have been restricted in a handful of countries, including China, and in several U.S. cities and states. Even Shabab, the Islamist terror group at war with the Somali government, banned plastic bags for environmental reasons last week. But bag bans in the United States have been subject to fierce resistance from plastics manufacturers and the Republican politicians they support as well as, in a more humdrum way, people who order a lot of takeout.

Measures like these, which are always to some degree good for the planet and inconvenient for consumers, fall somewhere around the intersection of two axes: environmental gain (usually in the long term) and consumer cost (usually immediate). Indoor smoking bans, for example, were high in the right quadrant, as they instantly improved the air quality inside bars and restaurants with few repercussions for the general population. (Smoking rates were already plummeting.) The 1990 Clean Air Act fought acid rain at no perceptible cost to the average American.

Anti-straw advocacy is a more middling proposition. Yes, straws are an invention so frivolous they would appeal, among our ancestors, only to a hunter-gatherer trying to sip from an eddy in a stream. Popularized during the early 20th century as part of a “Yankee mania for sanitation,” the disposable straw now primarily serves the comically bourgeois function of letting us sip from iced drinks without getting ice in our mouths. (That’s good for your teeth too, but only because everything we drink is so full of sugar.) Needless to say, the serious public health benefits of straws have long since been obviated by modern advances in public health (though for Americans with disabilities, access to straws remains vital). Meanwhile, according to a global survey of beach cleanups conducted by the Ocean Conservancy, straws and stirrers are the seventh-most-common item of beach trash after cigarette butts, plastic bottles, bottle caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, and plastic lids.

On the flip side: Straws are less likely to distract turtles than, say, bottle lids that resemble surface insects or fractured balloons that look like jellyfish. By weight, straws likely constitute a minuscule fraction of ocean waste, and therefore, make up a tiny fraction of the so-called plastic soup that constitutes the ocean’s biggest hazard. “My big concern in a global context is micro plastic,” said Brendan Godley, a conservation scientist at the University of Exeter. “All these big bits are breaking down into smaller bits and converging on areas where baby turtles live, and if we don’t reduce that, we’re going to have baby turtles all eating plastic messing up their insides.”

Seattle announced the prohibition last fall as part of a business-led campaign, “Strawless in Seattle,” to promote biodegradable alternatives. Led by the Lonely Whale Foundation, a clean-ocean project co-founded by the actor Adrian Grenier, the monthlong effort kept 2.3 million straws out of the garbage. In their place came biodegradable straws, of varying quality, in such a rush that manufacturers are struggling to keep up.

“We see straws as a gateway,” Grenier told me. The foundation, he said, had been pushing Starbucks to commit to straw reduction for about a year and a half. (It also partnered with Alaska Airlines.) “Plastic is so engrained in our lifestyle and our culture that to ask people to make absolute, grandiose change is unrealistic.” In other words, giving up straws may not change the world, but you don’t have to change the world to give up straws.

Critics sense a trap lies in these kinds of proud, visible, but globally inconsequential acts of environmentalism. At Grist, Shannon Osaka writes that a straw ban—like, say, letting your A/C hum along at 74 instead of 68—risks functioning as a “moral license” that allows back-patting liberals to take their strawless iced latte and climb back into their SUVs with a clean conscience.

This is, of course, possible. But there’s something encouraging about the way strawlessness seems to be trickling across businesses and customers, from Starbucks and Alaska Airlines to upscale New York restaurants to the Chicago White Sox. At first, the movement appears to resemble the soda taxes that have spread to several U.S. cities in recent years—the confiscation of something we like even if it’s bad for us (our teeth, or our planet). Each tactic smells of nanny statism, a metaphor embellished by the fact that the formerly straw-punctured lids of Starbucks iced lattes are being replaced with a high-design, disposable iteration of a cup for babies.

But they are in other ways opposites: A soda tax is the quintessential egghead health policy—popular and sensible in the minds of the academy, but with no clear constituency of consumers rooting for it. Not using a straw, by contrast, is apparently something that makes people feel good. And that’s important: Taxes, bans, and other environmental initiatives don’t work unless they have broad popular support. In California, a grassroots gas-tax recall is gaining steam because Democrats have failed to tie the surcharge to quality-of-life improvements. In China, a 10-year-old plastic bag ban appears to be floundering. The prohibition on superthin bags has had unforeseen effects: At KFC in Beijing these days, every meal comes in a thick, white, single-use plastic bag—nearly all of which are thrown away immediately.

The most effective change, in other words, starts from below and rises to the top. That way, it’s already socially enforced by the time it’s codified. An example of this is the way environmentally conscious Americans cut up six-pack rings in the 1970s and ’80s. Vermont voted to ban nondegradable six-pack rings in 1976. In 1988, Ronald Reagan signed a bill requiring they be manufactured to degrade in sunlight. (This, by the way, is a story of social awareness leading to regulation, not environmental success: Six-pack rings may not strangle dolphins anymore, but they do degrade into plastic soup.) Six-pack rings, like straws, were once considered a “hidden hero” of modern design; today, as Massachusetts Rep. Gerry Studds put it, they epitomize the plastic-pollution problem, as “a highly successful product that is functional and durable, yet ugly and deadly when improperly discarded.” He might as well have been talking about straws.

Does it make a difference to the future of the planet if you don’t take a straw? Maybe not. But Starbucks removing 1 billion plastic straws a year from circulation? That’s something. Straws going out of fashion would be something more. And once you’re not taking a straw with your cup, maybe you’ll remember to think twice about grabbing that plastic bag too.