Counterpoint: Plastic straw bans are an erroneous endeavor


(Illustration by Maria Heines | Staff Illustrator)

By Neena Hagen , Senior Columnist

Read columnist Joshua Jordan’s point column on the topic here

In Santa Barbara, California, many crimes can land you up to six months in jail — burglary, assault and possession of illegal drugs, for example. This July, the city’s council voted to add another crime to that list — selling plastic straws at restaurants, delis and coffee shops.

Santa Barbara’s new ordinance is just the latest installment in America’s war on plastic straws. In Seattle and San Francisco, a server who gives a customer an unrequested straw can now face a fine up to $1,000 per offense.

These policies may be well-intentioned — they aim to protect sea creatures harmed by excessive plastic in waterways. But one glance at the data reveals that straws hardly contribute to ocean pollution at all, so straw bans are misguided, unnecessary and even potentially harmful.

Forfeiting the occasional straw won’t make a dent in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an island of trash in the Pacific Ocean the size of Texas. According to research from Australian scientists, there could be up to 8.3 billion straws lying on coastlines worldwide. But even if they all entered the ocean at once, they’d account for only 0.03 percent of the 8 million metric tons of plastic that are dumped into waterways each year.

Nearly half of that garbage comes from fishing gear — 1,500 times more volume than from plastic straws. And abandoned fishing nets are by far the most lethal plastic waste for marine life, trapping millions of sea creatures each year, by design.

The United Nations has been heavily regulating the fishing industry since the 1990s to combat pollution from fishing gear. They’ve instituted stiff dumping fines and better on-shore facilities to recycle used fishing nets. But while wealthy countries follow these rules with ease, developing countries struggle. So it’s no coincidence that Asia, a continent comprised mostly of poor countries, is to blame for five times more plastic trash per capita than the United States.

Since most developing countries don’t have the infrastructure to dispose of waste responsibly, the United States should help to finance and build more eco-friendly waste disposal plants in these nations.

If politicians put half as much effort into regulating the fishing industry and aiding foreign countries as they did cracking down on everyone’s iced coffee, they could significantly reduce ocean pollution and actually “save the sea turtles” as their bumper stickers say.

But instead, their poorly substantiated anti-straw efforts could actually worsen atmospheric pollution. Disposable paper products, like cups —require 20 percent more fossil fuel and 50 percent more electricity to produce than their plastic counterparts.

According to research from the California State Water Resources Control Board, these alternatives may not even reduce ocean pollution one iota.

“Mere substitution would not result in reduced trash generation if such product substitution would be discarded in the same manner as the banned item,” the study reads.

Since California’s plastic straw ban would hardly reduce plastic pollution in America, let alone worldwide, making hefty fines and jail sentences a possible punishment for using straws seems extreme.

But it turns out the threat of jail-time is not even necessary to deter straw use. Many large corporations are already phasing out plastic straws on their own. Starbucks, McDonald’s and American Airlines have all promised to eliminate straws from their locations in just a few years. So if politicians want straw-free cities, the private sector is already accomplishing that — and far less coercively.

This doesn’t mean governments shouldn’t concern themselves with saving the environment — they should. But instead of peddling petty, unhelpful policies like the straw ban, they should focus their efforts where they’ll actually make a difference — like regulating the fishing industry, helping improve waste disposal policies in developing countries and making sustainable alternatives more accessible.

Likewise, individuals should make an effort to reduce their carbon footprint. And while forgoing that straw may give you a surge of do-gooderism, it hardly helps the environment.

The straw ban may sound virtuous, but it’s a plastic solution politicians who push it are just grasping at straws.