Many cities and some states have banned single-use plastic shopping bags. The next item on the list? It could be the plastic drinking straw.
Cities and states that have banned plastic bags have done so for several reasons—they’re not biodegradable; they contribute to landfill waste—but one of the most-cited has been that so many of them end up in waterways. Plastics in the ocean are a serious problem, harming marine life and possibly working their way up the food chain, and they don’t really go away; they just break down into smaller pieces that are more likely to be ingested by fish and birds.
Campaigns to ban straws are underway in several coastal cities, both in the US and in other countries. One such city is Huntington Beach, CA. Not everyone is onboard, though. “It’s not government’s provenance to ban anything that’s safe and legal, including straws,” a Huntington Beach councilman is quoted as saying in this article. “It’s always been my position you educate and advocate but don’t legislate.”
I tend to agree with that idea; it’s not the straws themselves that are necessarily the problem, but what we do with them. Yet people continue to drop them everywhere, and even if the great majority of us take care to dispose of them properly, many are bound to slip through the cracks, so to speak. Nationwide, we use a mind-boggling 500 million straws every day. The article above notes that within a generation, it’s estimated the pieces of plastic in the ocean will outnumber the fish.
There’s also the case to be made that we ban, limit, or phase out all sorts of other objects for safety and environmental reasons, from incandescent light bulbs to copper in brake pads to plastic microbeads in personal care products. Straws are arguably less necessary than many of these other products.
Some people are advocating for something less than an all-out ban of plastic straws. They suggest substituting paper ones, which will eventually biodegrade, or simply making straws available only by request. If you want one with your Coke, you’ll have to ask for it, in much the same way restaurants in water-restricted areas often don’t serve water automatically but wait until diners request it. A spokesperson for the environmental group Heal the Bay estimates that a straws-on-request policy would reduce their use by 60 to 80%.
For those jurisdictions that do try to pass a straw ban, getting people to accept the idea will be tricky. I live in an area that has banned plastic bags; many people I know cheered the idea, while others are simply annoyed by it or don’t believe it will make much of a difference to the overall pollution problem. Yet in some places, the idea of “no straws allowed” is readily, even enthusiastically, accepted. Many zoos and animal parks don’t allow them. When people lined up at the snack bar are told that it’s for the safety of the animals, few complain. Advocates of a straw ban have circulated videos like the one below showing biologists removing a plastic straw that was stuck in the nose of a sea turtle. (A warning—It’s a really disturbing eight-minute video, and it involves blood. If you don’t want to watch the whole thing yourself, I’ll just tell you that they do manage to get the straw out in the end, and the turtle was reportedly fine.) This video has been viewed millions of times and is still being circulated. Do you think tactics like this—either to encourage an actual ban, or as an alternative to get people to voluntarily give up straws or dispose of them more conscientiously—will work? Other ideas? Share them in the comments.