Drawing the Short Straw

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Just about a year ago, I wrote about cities that are considering banning single-use plastic items beyond the plastic bag. Drinking straws were high on the list. They’re rarely recycled, and millions of them end up in waterways.

That post got quite a few comments at the time. Some of you pointed out that there are medical reasons for some people to use drinking straws. Others suggested biodegradable alternatives like paper or—go figure—actual pieces of straw, which are still used in some parts of the world. (“Let us not forget why these things are called straws in the first place,” said the commenter; scroll down to the last comment here.) Some suggested charging a fee on single-use non-biodegradable items. Some wondered whether restaurants would allow people to bring their own straws—and drink containers, for that matter—or whether that would open the restaurants to liability.

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The ban on straws, or at least a partial ban, is now a reality in many places. Last Friday in the US was designated National Skip the Straw Day. By this summer, restaurants in Seattle will be able to offer customers only biodegradable straws. Glasgow, Scotland, doesn’t allow plastic straws to be used in municipal buildings. The European Union is trying to have all single-use plastic items banned in all of its member countries by 2030.

This article takes a look at what’s happening in other countries, especially the UK, and at how manufacturers of straws and other plastic items are reacting to the shift in public opinion against their products. A company called Plastico, which makes plastic straws and eating utensils, is offering to take its used products back from consumers—sort of like the cradle-to-grave responsibility practiced by some manufacturers of products with hazardous components, but on a much wider scale. Consumers might actually go to the trouble of returning a defunct computer monitor at the end of its useful life, but, realistically, what are they going to do with a tiny product like a straw?

Another company, Primaplast, says it’s willing to manufacture straws from biodegradable plastic but notes they will cost five to six times as much as regular plastic ones, and restaurants probably won’t be willing to pay for them. A few companies—Plastico among them—are also selling paper straws.

There’s the classic example from Marketing 101 about making the transition from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles: The companies that thought of themselves strictly as makers of carriages saw themselves slowly becoming obsolete, but those who refashioned themselves as makers of “passenger vehicles” made the jump to manufacturing auto bodies, and survived.  (If you’ve driven an older Ford, for instance, you might remember the “Body by Fisher” logo with the image of a carriage.) Even if outright bans on plastic items like the one proposed by the European Union don’t come to pass, the gradual curtailing and restrictions on plastic utensils, straws, and the like might prompt many of these plastics companies to come up with affordable alternatives—reusable, degradable, recyclable, or otherwise—that will help curb the growing plastics problem in the oceans and other water bodies. SW_bug_web

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  1. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article about the other little plastic item people love to hate – the individual dental flosser (See: A prayer for the city: Please stop flossing in public by Samantha Melamed, Staff Writer, February 26, 2018. I don;t think anyone is going to want to take those back!

    1. Drew, Thanks for mentioning the article. Here’s a link to it:
      It quotes the flosser’s inventor (from his memoir, describing how he failed to patent the product): “Since this invention was a simple disposable plastic product, I did not think there was likely to be a great potential for high sales…. Looking back, this is probably one of the worst mistakes I have made in my life.”

  2. Janice, not to be picky, but Body by Fisher was a General Motors company, not Ford. It will be interesting to see what places like McDonalds does. They clam their straws are what makes there drinks taste better.

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