It seems the progressives are at it again, and plastic straws are making headlines once more. From a variety of celebrity social media campaigns, to companies phasing them out, to all-out bans – like the one in what is quickly becoming the capital of American progressivism, Seattle – the plastic straw seems to be the villain of the day.
For most, straws aren’t necessary. They’re not even all that convenient for some of us, who are perfectly fine with picking up our cups and drinking as has been done for thousands of years. However, plastic straws aren’t destroying the oceans, so banning them won’t save the world from pollution. Many plastic alternatives are worse – either because they’re less durable or because they require more natural resources and create more waste to manufacture. Beyond that, some people have a legitimate need to use them – and for such folk, there’s none so handy as the plastic bendy straw.
Bad MathMilo Cress, in the early days of his activism
This whole anti-straw thing began back in 2011, with a nine-year-old named Milo Cress. He noticed folks removing them from their cups at a restaurant and was struck with, to be fair to the kid, what was actually a good idea. If food servers asked whether their patrons wanted straws rather than just assuming, there wouldn’t be nearly as many straws wasted.
In an attempt to figure out how many were being used daily, Cress asked straw manufacturers. He got a wide range of answers, of course, but he settled on 500 million, which he figured was more or less the middle ground. It could well be that Cress was right, and around 500 million straws were used in the U.S. daily. Of course, the exact number isn’t the point. As he told USA Today, the statistic just illustrates that we use too many straws, and that even had he used one of the other estimates, the message would be the same: There’s room for reduction.
So let’s roll with 500 million, as Cress did. More importantly, his 500 million estimate doesn’t equal 500 million straws getting stuck in sea turtle noses. And that is the message that really matters.
Plastic Straws Aren’t the Issue
Eco-activists like to talk about the France-sized floating mass of garbage in the ocean, and how so many of these plastic straws are ending up there. Back to the USA Today article: They cite a professor of oceanography, who claims that 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the mid-1950s, 60% of which is now in “a landfill or natural environment, like the ocean.”
There’s a bit of verbal trickery going on here. This quote is meant to elicit shock at the idea that something like five billion tons of plastic is spread, either evenly or close to it, between landfills and oceans. In reality, since American trash pick-up services typically unload at landfills and are prohibited by law from dumping in waterways, it’s probably safe to assume that the vast majority of our tiny share of that 60% actually sits in landfills.
Also, this number represents plastic production around the world – not just in the U.S. There are many places where trash is routinely dumped into rivers so that the flow of water can take the trash away – out of sight, out of mind. This is not one of those places. There is a dangerous amount of plastic littering the ocean – and about 1% of it comes from the U.S., of which very little is actually plastic straws. According to the California Coastal Commission, there have been a total of 835,425 straws and stirrers picked up in the 30 years since 1988, which is only about 4% of the debris collected. Banning plastic straws in the U.S. will make absolutely no noticeable difference, other than to inconvenience and irk those who use them.
The Alternatives Are Worse
Paper, bamboo, glass, and steel straws all take more energy – and produce more waste – to manufacture than plastic straws. While the steel and glass ones would be reusable, the bamboo and paper would be considerably less so. And of course, they come with the added stigma of deforestation.
Well, at least they’re biodegradable, right? Not really. When we mix all the garbage up in a landfill, the layers of solid waste end up sealed in unoxygenated environments, and it takes far longer for everything to break down. It still decomposes, eventually, but as the National Solid Wastes Management Association explains, the purpose of landfills is storage, not recycling.
Some People Just Need a Plastic Bendy Straw
What may be the last straw for the “stop sucking” movement is that the durable, relatively safe to use, and flexible plastic bendy straw is still the best option for many children and disabled people. Vox writer S.E. Smith explains that while some disabled folks can use plastic straw alternatives, others can’t.
As Smith points out, the bendy straw was initially designed to help people drink while hospitalized. “As someone who was unable to drink independently in a hospital, I can tell you the appearance of a nurse with a cup of water and a jaunty bendy straw is one of the most heavenly sights imaginable,” writes Smith. “Even with an IV running full bore, there is nothing to replace the sensation of a deep, refreshing sip.”
Regardless of how many progressive politicians and celebrities vow to stop sucking, the facts just don’t support that narrative. Make no mistake: Reducing waste is generally a good thing, but banning straws isn’t the way to go about it.
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