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The Very Last Straw

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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.

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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.SW_bug_web



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  1. Went directly to Big Internet Store after reading this article and ordered 100 bamboo paper straws for 8.99. Will never use another plastic straw. Long ago gave up plastic bags, but I had been procrastinating on the straw issue. Easy solution to an environmental problem this time. Thanks.

  2. Before we totally ban straws, let’s remember there are those of us with an immune-suppressed system need to use those straws (Dr recommended) for sanitary purposes.

    1. This is an excellent point, and in fact the article I linked to in the blog points out that there are many medical reasons for using straws. A good argument for “only by request” rather than an all-out ban, perhaps. -Janice

    2. This is something new for me – the immune-suppressed system issue. Would not even using a straw also work? Do you have to use a straw to drink from a container? Just curious. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

      I have refused straws on this waste principal for years, and people think I’m weird. To each their own.

  3. We need to learn how to drink without straw! – joke.

    Straws, tops, etc. are one of the most abundant trash items we capture with our trash trap.
    If it is for people with immune-suppressed system, can they bring MY straw with them? If they still need to use disposable straw, can straws be made from starch?

    I am getting tired to talk about individual trash item – straw, tops, plastic bags, bottles, cap, cigarette, automobile parts, chip bags, styrofoam, etc. Almost all trash items we capture with our trash trap are plastic. Maybe we need to charge a fee on single use plastic products that help discourage the use of those plastics . Those fee should be used only to tackle with trash pollution.

  4. Use more paper! There are so many things today made of plastic that previously were made of paper: straws — even the wrapper that contains the straw! Plus the cups, lids, bags, canisters, jugs, trays to hold the cups…. We need to incentivize use of renewable forest products in our daily lives.

  5. Biodegradable straws would be great. Many people need straws for various medical reasons, but they do not need to be plastic. A brief mention in the article about incandescent light bulbs needing to be banned, the light bulb everyone should be worried about is the CFL. The CFL poses a risk of fire and has to be properly disposed of or risk the mercury inside the bulb getting into the environment.

  6. Will eating establishments allow customers to bring their own drink containers as an option? Many will not and thus keep one from using their own vessel with a top without need for a straw due to liability issues and fear of lawsuits. Will the drive-by complainers stop suing over getting sick and blaming the eatery even though the customer brought their own container? There are many workable options if people would take responsibility for their actions and not blame someone else. Will the cost of drinks go down if no straw is used? In general government should stay out of how we consume. Most of the time there are so many regulations that no one can meet them all.

  7. Let us not forget why these things are called straws in the first place: I first went with my new wife to see her parents in Warsaw, Poland around 1998. While sitting in their kitchen and when offered some lemonade, I asked if they might have a straw to drink it with. My mother-in-law rummaged around and finally found and opened a box of long, slim, paper-wrapped objects and gave me one. When I tore open the paper I was dumbfounded to see…a piece of straw — I think it was wheat straw. Sure enough, it worked fine for sipping my drink and I told her someone was a genius, and why don’t we have this in the USA!?

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