The Final Straw

Plastic straws are stirring important conversations in America.

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The Final Straw

Veronica Rohlfing

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Last week, my friend picked me up to take me to school ten minutes later than usual. When I climbed into their car, still a bit drowsy and disoriented, they handed me a Caramelicious drink from Scooter’s and a plastic straw. This was one straw of around 500 million that were thrown away in America that day alone, according to a 2011 study by Milo Cress and his mother. However, it should be noted that there is some uncertainty associated with that number. Many environmentalists have latched onto it since it aligns near the center of the estimates given by other sources.

“I know I use a lot of plastic,” sophomore Isabel Johnson said. “It’s hard to avoid using plastic when it’s everywhere… like wrappers, water bottles, straws, and all kinds of stuff. I get why people want to use less plastic, but I’m not really sure if they will go through with it.”

It shouldn’t be shocking news to anybody that we use way too much plastic in our day-to-day lives. Business Insider reported that the total plastic consumption worldwide reached 300 million metric tons in 2015. Less than 9% of plastic waste is actually recycled, regardless of which bin you toss it in. More than 79% winds up in landfills (or elsewhere in the natural world), and another 12% is burned in incinerators, which adds harmful matter into the atmosphere.

So, you may wonder why there is such a focus on plastic straws, specifically; if there’s so much plastic waste, then what difference will it make? Well, in 2015, a video of a turtle struggling to breathe went viral because a plastic straw was encrusted in its nostril, and it sparked an initiative to cut down on plastic straws. The straws are also an easy target because they’re less likely to be recycled due to their small size, and they can take up to 200 years to decompose according to International Coastal Cleanup.

“Plastic straws are just a part of a bigger plastic problem. There’s a lot more that needs to be done about it than just reducing the amount of straws we use,” Johnson said.

Environmentalists have been excited to hear that large corporations, such as Starbucks, Disney, American Airlines, and Hyatt Hotels, have made the decision to stop offering single-use plastic straws, and offer alternatives. According to The Wall Street Journal, some major cities, such as Portland, Miami, and New York have passed legislation that restricts access to them. Seattle was the first to introduce a city-wide “ban” by making it more difficult for businesses to hand out plastic straws.

“I’m glad people are starting to be more conscious of their environmental impact. It might help their customers be more willing to use less plastic,” Johnson said.
Seattle was the first U.S. city to impose a city-wide ban on plastic straws. The ban is only a few months old, and so it’s hard to discern whether or not it’s made any impact yet. As reported by NPR, the ban does include an exemption for those who need to use them due to disabilities, but it isn’t enforced. Many restaurants don’t even have straws on hand for anybody who may need one. It’s not clear whether they didn’t know about the exemption, or if they did, but they decided to ignore it.

Shaun Bickley, the co-chair of the Seattle Commission for People with Disabilities, said in an interview with Business Insider Magazine that he had asked plenty of chain restaurants “if they had plastic straws available for people with allergies or need, and they told me no.”

As great as this may sound, there are plenty of risks along with it, specifically, it could be extremely dangerous for people with disabilities. Those with mobility handicaps, such as cerebral palsy, can have trouble drinking out of cups. In addition to that, autoimmune diseases mean that it is often unsafe to drink without a new straw, especially if the restaurant did a poor job of cleaning their cups previously. Many with these complications feel like their voices aren’t being heard amid the roaring support for the bans and restrictions.

“That (concern) makes a lot of sense,”sophomore Hailey Sant said. “I’d be really upset if I couldn’t get something as simple as a plastic straw if I needed it.”
People with disabilities now have to be more prepared for what may or may not be available wherever they go since many aren’t able to drink without using a straw. Alternatives, such as paper, biodegradable plastic, or reusable straws are often not as functional as typical plastic straws. Paper and many biodegradable options often fall apart, especially in hot drinks, and are easy to bite through. Silicone, metal, and other reusable straws usually aren’t flexible, which is important for many people with mobility problems. Additionally, metal straws conduct heat and cold, which can be a safety risk.

“Companies should just have extra straws on hand for them. Banning plastic straws entirely might be a bad idea, but cutting down on them is still good,” Sant said.

Truthfully, there are plenty of concerns about why companies are even bothering with these bans. Companies are driven by profit. The concern generally bubbles around the question of whether or not they will go through with reducing plastic use, or if they are only making these announcements to seem more trendy and environmentally-friendly. However, even if it is just empty performative activism, it could still have a positive impact.

“I definitely think that plenty of businesses are only doing this because it’s trending right now,” Sant said. “They have no other incentive, and this could just mean more business for them.”

In reality, plastic straws have only been around since 1960. It’s hard to determine how much of a positive impact getting rid of them may (or may not) have on our planet. Most people can agree that even just small action can have a huge impact if enough people are on board. Ideally, restrictions on plastic straws will be a gateway to restrictions on other types of single-use plastic, such as plastic utensils, bags, and water bottles.

“At the end of the day, they [consumers] will decide if they want to use plastic or not,” Johnson said. “If people are convinced that they should use less plastic, then maybe they will.”