The Last Straw

Were you one of the 150,000 signatures on the online consumer campaign for Starbucks to ban plastic straws from their chains? Starbucks has become among the latest in a group of companies, now including American Airlines, Hyatt, Marriott International, Alaska Airlines, SeaWorld and Royal Caribbean, to ban or commit to disallow plastic straws. Plastic straw bans are also taking hold. Companies as well as state governments are moving towards reducing their use of both compostable and non-compostable plastic for a myriad of reasons. Whether it is because of consumer pressure or through a genuine desire to positively impact the environment, anyone who joins the anti-straw movement seems to be making the ‘correct’ choice. However, the economic and even moral implications of banning plastic straws may cause some to hesitate before they advocate for the complete prohibition of plastic straws and all things plastic.

Environmentalists and those concerned for the future would argue that the negative environmental impact of plastic should outweigh any economic or short-term gains that would be attained through the usage of plastic straws in deciding whether or not to use them. This advocacy often highlights recently increased awareness about the harmfulness of drinking from plastics and the rise of alternative methods of drinking, including using paper or metal straws or simply drinking with no straw at all. The statistics surrounding our use of plastic and its impact on the environment are staggering; less than 9% of all of the plastic we use every day gets recycled; instead, the majority of it ends up in landfills or floating out in the ocean and endangering marine life. Not all of this plastic is from straws, but the idea of phasing out of a single piece of plastic could be a first step in a necessary larger human behavioral change.

While true, as the anti-straw movement quickly gains worldwide support and celebrity backing, it may be practical to consider the ban’s unintended consequences. Boba stores, which sell bubble tea that contains large balls of tapioca and requires a wide straw to suck, are forced to settle for pricier alternatives. Because manufacturers of compostable straws can’t keep up production to meet the demand, and because of the lack of vendors who sell super-sized paper straws large enough for bubble tea, their shops could go out of business if they do not have enough time to adjust to the new laws. Furthermore, anyone with disabilities like cerebral palsy, which can hinder the ability of someone to drink a beverage without the assistance of a straw, now has to navigate yet another obstacle to dining in public. The reusable metal options aren’t malleable or soft enough for some with certain disabilities, and for those with limited mobility, bringing and then accessing their own utensils whenever they go to a restaurant is both a hurdle and a hassle.

How can these pros and cons be weighed? One group looking for a compromise is the Be Straw Free project, that has been largely credited for starting the anti-straw movement. It is pushing for an “offer first policy”: waiters and waitresses have agreed to offer plastic straws to customers rather than serving them automatically. This happy medium is already gaining traction politically too; California legislature recently passed a bill seeking to make this a required statewide practice. The policy still reduces the amount of waste circulating while still providing straws to those who need them. According to the Guardian, restaurants participating in this project found that 50%-80% of customers elected not to drink with a straw when offered.

By curbing usage of plastic straws until manufacturers of environmentally friendly solutions like paper straws can meet the demand of such a growing trend, the idea of an offer first policy quite literally does not suck.