The Last Straw

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The plastic straw ban is sweeping the nation. Monmouth Beach, NJ, has banned them; CA is looking to restrict them after Malibu banned them outright; Bon Appétit, a food service company, is getting rid of plastic straws; New York City is contemplating it, Seattle already did it, Starbucks is phasing them out, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines are eliminating them – plastic is losing its appeal, and rightfully so (1, 2).

That said, there are drawbacks. First off, while Starbucks can create a sippy-cup-type lid, they can’t make one that will help people with disabilities. Plastic straws don’t get soggy, which increases the risk of choking; they’re flexible, so that people with mobility-related disabilities can use them; they don’t present the obvious dangers that metal and glass do for people with difficulty controlling their bite; and they’re suitable for high-temperature liquids, like soup (3). They were originally used in hospitals as sanitary, time-saving, labor-saving tools for people who had trouble holding cups, or for people who couldn’t sit up (3). They’re lightweight, cheap, easy to get and easy to use, and taking them away makes it difficult for people with a variety of disabilities to perform the basic acts of eating and drinking. Until someone invents a biodegradable straw with the same features as a bendable plastic straw, there will be pushback from the disabled community against outright bans.

Moreover, straw usage might not be as obscene as everyone thinks it is. As the New York Times points out, the 500 million straws-per-day statistic cited in most articles was calculated by Milo Cress of Burlington, VT., eight years ago, when he was nine years old (4). Last month, the Times said that more rigorous research puts the number at most – 390 million per day (4). Maybe we’ve gotten better over the years, but that’s not stopping anybody from reporting the 500 million statistic as the final count.

Last but not least, straws are not the problem. The best estimate says that there could be up to 8.3 billion plastic straws in the ocean (5). Those straws are only .03% of the total estimated weight of all the plastics in the ocean (5). A 2018 study by L. Lebreton, et al., found that at least 46% of the garbage in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an enormous plastic accumulation zone between CA and HI, consisted of fishing nets (6). Now, this study only looked at one patch of trash, and is therefore difficult to extrapolate to all the trash in the ocean. That said, it doesn’t change the fact that all that fishing gear is in the ocean, nor does it change the fact that straws are too small to hold a candle to the piles of plastic in our seas. A plastic ban is on the right track, but a shift in priorities might be in order.

References

  1. Melissa Locker, “Here are the U.S. cities that have banned plastic straws so far.” Accessed 8/06/18. https://www.fastcompany.com/40580132/here-are-the-u-s-cities-that-have-banned-plastic-straws-so-far
  2. “Starbucks to Eliminate Plastic Straws Globally by 2020.” Accessed 8/06/18. https://news.starbucks.com/press-releases/starbucks-to-eliminate-plastic-straws-globally-by-2020
  3. Anne Quito, “The bendy plastic straw was originally used in hospitals and vital for people with disabilities.” Accessed 8/06/16. https://qz.com/1324094/how-the-starbucks-plastic-straw-ban-affects-people-with-disabilities/
  4. Niraj Chokshi, “How a 9-Year-Old Boy’s Statistic Shaped a Debate on Straws.” Accessed 8/06/18. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/19/business/plastic-straws-ban-fact-check-nyt.html
  5. Randy Blaser, “Column: Reducing plastic straws is fine, going after the fishing industry is better.” Accessed 8/06/16. http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/ct-hpn-blaser-column-straws-tl-0809-story,amp.html
  6. L. Lebreton, et al., “Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic,” Scientific Reports, 8 (2018). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-22939-w

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