Banning plastic straws is just a distraction from the more pressing issue of waste. Last July, Seattle became the first US city to ban plastic straws. Since then, the #stopsucking cause has taken North America by storm, getting wide support and even celebrity backing (think Chelsea Clinton, Tom Felton, and Tom Brady).
Players of all shapes and sizes have jumped on the bandwagon to phase out plastic straws, from big companies like Starbucks and Mcdonald’s, to cities like Vancouver and New York, and even local environmental groups. But these straws only make up about 0.03 per cent of plastic waste, so it’s strange that we’ve chosen to focus on them.
Plastic in our oceans is a huge issue. Who can ignore the garbage patch that is twice the size of Texas, currently floating around in the Pacific Ocean – and it’s only one of many. Plastics don’t ever biodegrade; instead’ they break down into microplastics, filling landfills and polluting our oceans, where they strangle marine creatures and release potentially toxic chemicals like BPA.
At our current rate of use, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish, according to the World Economic Forum.
It’s interesting that the US has chosen to centre its environmental fight on plastic straws, when it’s such a minor contributor to ocean waste. You could even argue that using paper straws is more environmentally taxing, since they take four times more energy to produce (according to research by the Northern Ireland Assembly on plastic vs. paper bags), although it is true that paper disintegrates much more easily.
The danger of the #stopsucking hype is that it allows companies to distract consumers from causes that really matter, and could detract institutions from solving wider systemic issues that plague our global system today.
It’s so easy for a company to greenwash their way into a movement like this. They can hop on an initiative that generates cost savings and wins brownie points, then continue to let their linear manufacturing processes generate millions of tonnes of waste. As consumers, we rely on what media, companies, and our friends tell us when making our decisions, and in our time-starved lives, it’s easy to believe whatever we’re hearing.
There are so many more important initiatives to focus on, for instance, better local recycling so we don’t have to ship all our plastic to the Philippines and Malaysia, shifting consumer attitudes to packaging, lobbying companies to be accountable for their waste and to stop playing up the importance of plastic straws so people feel that by refusing them, they are doing enough for the planet.
Don’t take a plastic straw if you don’t need to, but remember that this is only the beginning – there’s so much more to be done.