A crusade against plastic drinking straws? Huh?
At first glance, it may strike you as frivolous. But it’s not. In fact, it’s pretty darned serious.
In California, the city of Berkeley may kick off such a crusade. In June, the city council directed its staff to research what would be California’s first city ordinance prohibiting the use of plastic drinking straws in bars, restaurants, and coffee shops.
Berkeley is responding to efforts by nonprofit groups like the Surfrider Foundation that want to eliminate a significant source of pollution in our oceans, lakes, and other bodies of water. According to the conservation group Save the Bay, the annual cleanup days held on California beaches have found that plastic straws and stirrers are the sixth most common kind of litter. If they’re on our beaches, they’re flowing into the San Francisco Bay, into the Pacific Ocean, and ultimately into oceans all over the world.
As City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, a co-author of the proposal to study the ban, has noted, “They are not biodegradable, and there are alternatives.”
I’ve been told that plastic straws aren’t recyclable, either. So whenever I find myself using a plastic straw to slurp my drink, I conscientiously separate my waste: my can of Coke Zero goes into the recycling bin; my plastic straw goes into the landfill bin. This is nuts. Banning plastic straws in favor of paper ones is the answer.
Realistically, it may be a tough fight to ban plastic straws because business interests (like the Monster Straw Co. in Laguna Beach) want to keep making and selling them. And business owners claim that they’re more cost-effective, leading customers to prefer them. As Monster’s founder and owner, Natalie Buketov, told the SF Chronicle, “right now the public wants cheap plastic straws.”
Berkeley could vote on a ban by early 2018.
On the restaurant front, some chefs would like to see the end of plastic straws. Spearheading a growing movement to steer eateries away from serving straws is Marcel Vigneron, owner-chef of Wolf Restaurant on Melrose Avenue in L.A. Vigneron, who’s appeared on TV’s “Top Chef” and “Iron Chef,” is also an enthusiastic surfer, and he’s seen the impact of straw-pollution on the beaches and marine wildlife. He likes the moniker “Straws Suck” to promote his effort to move away from straws, especially the play on words: “You actually use straws to suck, and they suck because they pollute the oceans,” he told CBS in July.
Vigneron added that if a customer wants a straw, his restaurant has them. But servers ask customers whether they want a straw instead of automatically putting them into customers’ drinks. He notes that every day, 500 million straws are used in the U.S., and they could “fill up 127 school buses.” He wants to change all that.
Drinking straws have a long history. Their origins were apparently actual straw, or other straw-like grasses and plants. The first paper straw, made from paper coated with paraffin wax, was patented in 1888 by Marvin Stone, who didn’t like the flavor of a rye grass straw added to his mint julep. The “bendy” paper straw was patented in 1937. But the plastic straw took off, along with many other plastic innovations, in the 1960s, and nowadays they’re difficult to avoid.
Campaigns like Surfrider’s have taken off because of mounting concern with plastic pollution. Surfrider, which has also campaigned against other threats to our oceans, like plastic bags and cigarette butts, supports the “Straws Suck” effort, and according to author David Suzuki, Bacardi has joined with Surfrider in the movement to ban plastic straws.
Our neighbors to the north have already leaped ahead of California. The town of Tofino in British Columbia claims that it mounted the very first “Straws Suck” campaign in 2016. By Earth Day in April that year, almost every local business had banned plastic straws. A fascinating story describing this effort appeared in the Vancouver Sun on April 22, 2016.
All of us in the U.S., indeed the world, need to pay attention to what plastic is doing to our environment. “At the current rate, we are really headed toward a plastic planet,” according to the author of a study reported in the journal Science Advances, reported by AP in July. Roland Geyer, an industrial ecologist at UC Santa Barbara, noted that there’s enough discarded plastic to bury Manhattan under more than 2 miles of trash.
Geyer used the plastics industry’s own data to find that the amount of plastics made and thrown out is accelerating. In 2015, the world created more than twice as much as it made in 1998.
The plastics industry has fought back, relying on the standard of cost-effectiveness. It claims that alternatives to plastic, like glass, paper, or aluminum, would require more energy to produce. But even if that’s true, the energy difference in the case of items like drinking straws would probably be minimal. If we substitute paper straws for plastic ones, the cost difference would likely be negligible, while the difference for our environment—eliminating all those plastic straws floating around in our waterways–could be significant.
Aside from city bans and eco-conscious restaurateurs, we need to challenge entities like Starbucks. The mega-coffee-company and coffeehouse-chain prominently offers, even flaunts, brightly-colored plastic straws for customers sipping its cold drinks. What’s worse: they happily sell them to others! Just check out the Starbucks straws for sale on Amazon.com. Knowing what we know about plastic pollution, I think Starbucks’s choice to further pollute our environment by selling its plastic straws on the Internet is unforgivable.
At the end of the day, isn’t this really the last straw?