Plastic Straws: To Ban or Not To Ban

We know that this debate can be a heated one: the question of whether or not plastic straws should be banned from our communities. As a company that works with plastic and cares deeply about and works tirelessly towards our sustainable future, we actually don’t believe that banning plastic straws, or banning any plastic goods, is going to be the solution to plastic pollution that we are all desperately seeking. Now, before we get all up in arms over this, let’s just take a moment to understand the movement, its purpose, and its agenda to recognize why we disagree with this nuclear opinion.

The Premise

Let’s start off with some numbers: according to National Geographic, roughly eight million tons of plastic waste end up in our oceans. And of that eight million tons, an estimated 0.025% of that is made of plastic straws. From these numbers alone, it already appears that the ultimate removal of plastic straws from humanity will not be enough to curb our plastic disaster. But let’s not forget the video. A viral video surfaced around 2015 of a sea turtle who had a plastic straw that was lodged in its nose removed by a group of people who had found it - it was bloody and absolutely mortifying. And don't get us wrong. That matters. We care deeply for marine life and hated seeing that as much as the next person.

But where the general public misstepped here was watching that video and immediately placing the weight of the blame on the plastic straw itself. “If only we didn’t use plastic straws, this never would have happened!” Well, not quite. The problem is not the plastic straw. The problem is the fact that we are shipping our plastic waste across the globe and dumping this waste in the ocean in the process. The problem is that the people on our streets litter, and their waste falls through the drain pipes that get routed into bodies of water. The problem is that our recycling and plastic sorting infrastructure uses a mixture of technology that is decades old and manual labor, so it’s rife with inefficiencies. That video spoke volumes about our society, but really not much about plastic straws.

The Effect

You might be thinking that any progress is progress, right? Even if banning plastic straws reduced the amount of waste we’re contributing to the oceans by 0.025% it’s still better than nothing? Yes...and no. If there’s one thing we should recognize about human nature, is that it’s not easy to quit something cold turkey. Cutting out straws forever isn’t going to necessarily happen, we’re going to want alternatives. And as expected, different options have come up. You have your choices between paper, glass, metal, bamboo, etc. The issue here is that we don’t yet know the ramifications of any of these alternatives. Just because the material is not plastic doesn’t mean that 1) plastic wasn’t used at some point in the production lifecycle or 2) that whatever alternative we choose doesn’t have some other refuse that will prove harmful to us in the future. This isn’t to say that any of these alternatives are necessarily harmful, but there’s no guarantee that they’re not either, and for all we know, we could actually be picking the greater of two evils. The people who invented the plastic straw probably didn’t see this coming, either. This isn't a reason to avoid shifting over to finding alternatives, but rather something we should be weary of before we all blindly jump onboard to something new without doing our due diligence.

Another possible issue here is that in the wake of performative activism, community members may use this as an opportunity to check their “environmentalist” box. Now that they’ve shunned plastic straws and have committed to only using metal or paper straws, they’ve done their civic duty and can continue to do other things that still use plastic and still harm the environment like purchase massive amounts of online goods, order takeout, or buy groceries for large corporations (most packaging is still made of plastic). We can’t just pick the easiest task to cross off our list and call it a day. And even if people are not just doing this for social credits, the pervasive messaging of “ban plastic straws” actually conflates the issue to the point where people may actually believe that this is enough. It’s not until you dig deeper and actually look into this issue that most people will say “no, this is not enough, but it’s a step forward.” But we live in an age where the headline is what matters. And many well-intentioned people may be misled into believing that plastic straws really are public enemy #1.

And finally, this movement is deeply ableist. For many of us, it can probably be agreed on that plastic straws are more of a convenience than anything else. And that’s exactly why this movement was meant to be something that people could easily adopt. The idea was that you don’t really need a plastic straw anyway, so why contribute to our plastic pollution problem for something that’s not even necessary. Use a reusable one when you need it or don’t use it at all. But the problem here is that for some people, straws aren’t a convenience, they’re a necessity. And the codification of something like a plastic straw ban effectively alienates these people even further from the rest of society. People who require straws in order to consume food or drink have enough to deal with in their own daily lives, and this ban just gives them one more thing for them or their loved ones to worry about. There may be some exceptions to these proposals, like enabling dine-in restaurants to provide straws upon request (which is totally fine), but the language of the ban itself and of the movement itself says to those who need plastic straws: “we care more about sea turtles than we do about you.”

The Bottom Line

To be clear, we fully support sustainable living, and anything that people choose to do in deference to that. If you don’t need to use a plastic straw, don’t use it. If restaurants and food establishments require that guests ask for straws when they need them, that is a great step forward too. According to the EPA, the average American generates around 5.91 pounds of trash, so really, wherever and however we can reduce our contribution to the problem the better. And truthfully, our purpose aligns with the plastic straw ban movement: to eradicate single-use plastic. We just don’t think that a prohibition is going to get the job done.

Plastic in itself is not evil. Plastic is useful. It is a tool that has enabled us to accomplish so much with so little, and that still remains true today even amidst the plastic pollution issue. The problem we have shouldn't be with plastic itself, it should be with the way we dispose of it. Plastic is only single-use because our society hasn’t yet figured out how to reuse it. It is only single-use because of the lack of infrastructure and resources to enable use to treat these plastics as a commodity in and of itself.

But that’s where we can be the change. We’re here to take post-consumer “single-use” plastic waste and give it new life. We’re here to show you and the rest of the world that our future doesn’t need to be full of limitations and restrictions, but that we actually have an opportunity here to turn trash into treasure. Instead of treating plastic waste like the scourge of the Earth, let’s make plastic pollution the solution.