BY ANNA WONDRASEK
According to the market research firm Freedonia Group, Americans use about 390 million plastic straws every day.
However, the actual environmental impact of straws is small in comparison to other sources of waste. Much of the interest in straw bans comes from the impact on ocean creatures, but the US only produces about one percent of ocean waste; a straw ban would make more of a symbolic than literal impact.
“The US is responsible for about 300,000 metric tons of ocean waste, while there’s well over 30 million metric tons out there,” said David Courard-Hauri, professor of environmental science. “If you figure that straws make up a tenth of a percent of our waste, and our waste makes up less than one percent of global ocean waste, you can imagine that banning plastic straws in the US will not do a lot to address ocean waste.”
There is not much that can be done to make plastic straws environmentally sustainable, but Courard-Hauri suggests that research could be done to make them less damaging. He also suggests that the alternatives are not as environmentally friendly as advocates make them out to be.
“Paper is generally a lot worse from an energy and resources standpoint, bioplastics from an energy standpoint, reusable straws would need to be reused a lot before they were better, and so on,” he said. “I think the most sustainable thing we can do is to get in the habit of requiring people to ask for stuff they may not need, rather than assume they want it.”
For many, asking for a straw when they need one may not be an issue. But for those with disabilities that require them to use a straw in order to drink, it feels as if it is one more thing that sets them apart from able-bodied people.
“It’s already frustrating that establishments are almost always just very, very bare-minimally inclusive,” said Jen Starzec, two time author and disability rights advocate. “This would make them even less so.”
Additionally, asking for straws would further set disabled people apart from able-bodied people.
According to Starzec, it is important to remember that as environmentally sound as the alternatives seem, disabled people often need the flexibility and cleanliness that stainless steel and glass straws do not provide.
“Many people need the flexible, moveable kind of plastic straw that can be positioned in front of their face if they can’t move their head enough to reach the top of a straight straw,” said Starzec.
As for saving the environment, Starzec is all for it. However, like Professor Courard-Hauri, she thinks that there are more impactful ways to do so.
“I guarantee there are plenty of other types of plastics and stuff that are much more harmful to animals,” she said. “If you’re that concerned with saving them, begin by targeting and banning plastic products that aren’t necessary for a whole population of people’s survival.”
So as for whether a universal straw ban would be productive or not, the evidence points to no. Because the US contributes to such a minimal portion of plastic waste, and straws contribute to a minimal portion of the US waste, a ban on straws would likely not see results.
“People may see a straw ban as having “done their part” for the oceans, and be less motivated to look at larger solutions,” said Courard-Hauri. “This is the most important reason, in my opinion, to make sure that the battles you fight are important ones.”