Why you shouldn't be a 'straw-man' environmentalist

Why you shouldn't be a 'straw-man' environmentalist
A Eurasian Coot sits on a nest built from human litter, including plastic straws, inside a half-sunk boat in an Amsterdam canal. Credit: Shutterstock

The "straw bubble" has burst.

We're midway through 2018, and we have seen an explosion of efforts and local action to eliminate straws. Some of the world's largest companies, including McDonald's and Starbucks, have banned them from some of their operations.

McDonald's announced recently that it would replace plastic straws with paper ones in all restaurants in the U.K. and Ireland by September 2018. Similarly, Starbucks will eliminate plastic straws from all of its stores globally by 2020.

Airlines, hotel chains and local restaurants in droves are all removing the ubiquitous plastic from their consumer services.

Dramatic and evocative statements and statistics, including the infamous "plastic will outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050" prophecy, are inciting some incredible interventions from governments, large multinationals and individual citizens. Although these kinds of statements may not be entirely accurate, the overwhelming response has been the removal of straws from day-to-day society.

Anti-straw backlash

Along with these recent "anti-" endeavours, there comes an accompanying "anti-anti-straw" rhetoric that opposes such interventions on various grounds.

For instance, disability rights activists have weighed in on the plastic-straw ban. Some people with disabilities need straws to drink because they have trouble swallowing or cannot lift or hold a cup.

A plethora of alternatives to plastic straws exist to provide practical solutions, including silicone, paper and stainless steel. Ultimately, this means all consumers have an ethical choice to make: planet or plastic?

We don't contest the importance of accessibility, which is why we do not argue in favour of an absolute outright ban on straws. Rather, we believe that "having a disability and doing your part to help the environment are not mutually exclusive."

The anti-anti-straw arguments we take issue with are often either libertarian (hands off my straws) or pessimistic (this does not address the root cause of the problem) in nature. Some of these arguments are a mix of both.

A slew of journalists and writers have recently put forward counter-arguments to interventions seeking to reduce ocean plastics. They write that targeting straws specifically will not make a significant difference to the ocean.

Quantitatively, sure, straws make up a small portion of the plastics that enter and contaminate the ocean (roughly four per cent of litter). This does not mean, however, that straws aren't worth addressing.

Why is a targeted effort towards four per cent of being attacked as useless or ineffective, when the posited alternative is no effort at all?

Target "gateway plastic"

Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup's annual Dirty Dozen list highlights the items most commonly found on marine and freshwater shores. Straws rank ninth, below cigarette butts, food packaging, bottle caps and .

Other studies have found similar contributions to marine litter from plastic straws. The UNEP 2018 State of Plastics report also ranks straws and stirrers in seventh place for plastics found in the environment.

However, these other plastics require an entirely different approach to mitigating their entry into the environment.

Should we focus on an outright ban on cigarettes with the same vigour as we have straws? Can we vilify single-use plastic bottle beverage industry players in the same manner?

Presumably, those who are anti-anti-straw would respond accordingly, if not an order of magnitude greater, to these kinds of petitions.

War on straws

Dune Ives, the executive director of the Lonely Whale Foundation, has called straws "the gateway plastic" for those on the verge of environmentalism. For example, something as mundane or "playful" as a straw can open up a larger, more serious conversation about plastic pollution, or global mass consumption even more broadly.

This point is both the crux of the "war on straws" and the crucial piece moving forward in the overall endeavour to reduce marine plastic pollution: changing the norm.

Comparisons may also be made with plastic bag bans. For example, many countries and jurisdictions around the world have successfully implemented plastic bag bans or taxes to reduce plastic environmental pollution.

Like plastic straws, some groups suggest that because plastic bags are ultra-lightweight, they likely make negligible contributions to municipal waste. These groups also claim that banning plastic bags is more about appearances and idealism than about protecting the environment. However, like plastic bag bans, the concept of eliminating or replacing single-use plastic (SUP) straws requires a revolution in consumer mentality.

Changing habits

There is no radical extreme call to immediately stop the production of plastic products. Indeed, shaming plastic use has been seen as an ineffective way to get more people on board.

Plastics are imperative in many contexts, including sterile packaging and disposable tools in medicine, reducing food spoilage and increasing food safety. The movement to remove SUP straws, or even bags, should consider these nuances, but it is far from destroying the foundation of modern society.

With about eight million to 12 million metric tonnes of plastic entering our oceans each year, there is an urgent need to address our pervasive plastic problem.

We need a broad-scale and widespread approach that questions our throw-away culture, and the overwhelming trend to buy more, buy bigger and buy more often. Avoiding the use of a plastic straw may seem trivial, but it counts.

It may seem like a drop in the ocean, but what is an ocean anyway but many, many, drops?

Explore further

Seattle bans plastic straws, utensils at restaurants, bars

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User comments

Jul 25, 2018
Banning somethings is a bit controversial, especially for a secular government where their role isn't to tell what and how their citizen should behave and banning somethings is some sort of behaviour controls.

If you want to ban something then take a vote; if it is a majority/community thing then you can make a law to 'protect' the interest of the community but if the government alone insisting on banning (due to lobbying) then find a more flexible way; like regulating how business offer straws to customer or tax or incentive.

You shouldn't just ban things willy nilly.

Is the government a zealot of what?!

Jul 25, 2018
A number of points to consider.
A few years ago, New York City apprehended and fined several men for collecting newspaper at the curb and turning it in the recycling. The City was going to pick the paper up and take it to recycling, supposedly, and be paid for it. If the only purpose is "protecting the earth", who cares who gets the money? It seems the "recycling" gig was only a scam to make it easier for the City to get more money. That was the only purpose!
And consider that many municipalities have elaborate rules on what kind of plant material can be stored with what for pick up and some municipalities don't want "plant litter" put out for trash at all. That would be among the most biodegradable material there is! It seems the "environment" does not really play into that, either!
And how many cases of, say, Democratic Racketeers setting aside government land were really intended to impact Republican owned industries?

Jul 26, 2018
If you want to ban something then take a vote

Morality and ethics isn't a mob choice. You can't dictate for all peoples and all groups by the overall 51% opinion. That's where the article too gets the "libertarian" point of view wrong and builds up a strawman of their argument ("hands off my straws").

In reality its always your choice, not someone else's. Neither the state, some "enlightened autocrat" or high intelligentsia of liberal hippies, nor the 51% mob can make that choice for you.

You can't force people to behave nice because that will never stick - they won't understand why and will break the rule whenever you're not looking since you didn't actually convince them of the purpose of the rule - you just told the other 49% to do this or else.

Jul 26, 2018
For instance, disability rights activists have weighed in on the plastic-straw ban. Some people with disabilities need straws to drink

Ya know when a person knows they need help then they usually carry stuff for that purpose around with them. When you have a small child you carry diapers and don't expect everywhere you go to provide them for you. I mean: how do such disabled people drink at home? Surely they own a straw. So just take one with you if you're planning to have a drink.

And why is every bit of sensible action immediately a "war on...". Surely your sense of freedom doesn't hinge on getting a straw at McDonalds? You can still buy as many as you want for use at home (weirdly enough - no one uses them at home. What gives? Are these activists waging a secret "war on straws" at home? Outrageous!)

This whole anti-anti-straw thing seems a prime example of "yeah-but"-ism.

Jul 26, 2018
And why is every bit of sensible action immediately a "war on..."

Because the whole thing is blown out of proportion by both sides of the issue - one side going on a moral crusade over a minor issue, and another acting like a martyr to gain political brownie points.

Surely your sense of freedom doesn't hinge on getting a straw at McDonalds?

It's not so much about what, but about how. When the feelgood crusaders go around banning this and that without regards to what it actually accomplishes, the whole thing becomes counterproductive.

First by distorting the policymaking process into an irrational circus, distorting the role of the state administration and enabling later abuses because such micromanagement of society becomes normalized, and secondly by giving the opposition a full case of ammunition against all such politics, which they eventually use to reverse it.

Jul 30, 2018
I mean: how do such disabled people drink at home? Surely they own a straw.

The question is rather, where are they going to buy the straw when no outlet will sell you one, since they're banned?

Order them online at a specialty disabled store at 10000% markup? Hey, they're medical devices now, only allowed for a limited niche market, so you get to pay a dollar a straw.

Single use bendy plastic straws have their uses, and banning them entirely because people chuck their cocktail straws into the ocean is a bit of an over-reaction.

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