For most Americans, plastic straws are another innocuous convenience offered by modern life, allowing people a chance to drink their beverages on the go, or hydrate without the fear of ruining the lipstick. Yet for a growing crop of cities around the world, straws are the latest environmental menace that must be stopped.
A bill is being introduced in the New York City Council that would prohibit eating and drinking establishments from offering single-use plastic straws to their customers. Should it pass, the city will join Seattle, Long Beach, Calif. and Vancouver in adopting this plastic prohibition.
Momentum for these bans is growing. This year, California considered a bill that would make it a crime for restaurants to offer their patrons straws unless they specifically request them, while the United Kingdom announced its intention in April to ban straws country-wide.
In pushing these straw bans, proponents have two arguments: that excessive straw usage is clogging our oceans with toxic plastics, and that straws are themselves a useless extravagance no one will really miss. Neither stands up to scrutiny.
For plenty of people, straws are not a frivolous utensil, but a necessary tool for enjoying beverages outside the home.
This is most true for those with disabilities who, unable to grip a glass and bring it to their lips, require a straw. Wrote one disability advocate in the Huffington Post critiquing the UK’s impending straw ban “in a world without straws, I’m not entirely sure if I’d even be alive.”
Something similar can be said for millions of young children. Their lives might not be at risk from a straw ban, but they certainly lack the refined motor skills to pull off flawless, stain-free sipping.
Then there are those drinks that would be rendered hopelessly impractical in a straw-free world, from the standard milkshake to your favorite whipped-cream topped beverage from Starbucks. Bubble tea might disappear entirely without the straws needed to slurp up the tapioca balls at the bottom of the cup that give the beverage its name.
Indeed, bubble tea merchants were some of the strongest opponents of Vancouver’s straw ban, with one tea house manager telling the city council, “our industry depends on straws. This ban will be detrimental to many businesses in our city.”
Environmentalists might counter that reusable straws made of glass and steel can be made available for the truly disabled while everybody else should just, pardon the phrase, suck it up. Our oceans and coastlines are piling up with plastic straws, they will say, inevitably citing the statistic that Americans use and throw away 500 million of those suckers every day.
That 500 million figure has popped up everywhere from government websites and state legislation to CNN and The New York Times. Its source, as it turns out, is a 9-year-old who conducted a phone survey of three straw manufacturers in 2010. More credible estimates put American straw usage closer to 175 million a day.
Some might argue that 175 million straws are still a lot, too much even. Yet straws make up a pretty small portion of plastic waste overall. Results from California’s yearly coastal clean-up find that straws are about 4% of all beach debris collected. In Vancouver it’s 3%. In the UK, straws are just 2% of all beach refuge.
This is not to say that plastic waste in the oceans is not a problem, with some 8 million tons of the stuff entering the ocean every year. Yet straws are a tiny portion of that waste, and American straws a smaller portion still.
The U.S. as it turns out does a pretty good job of disposing of the waste we produce, making us responsible for less than 1% of plastic going into the oceans. That’s compared to countries like China, which contributes almost 28% of yearly plastic marine debris, or Indonesia, responsible for another 10%.
The environment would be better served by helping those countries improve their waste management systems than by outlawing the harmless convenience that are plastic straws.