Are Plastic Straws the Fix?

The paper straw poking out of my Starbucks cold brew has dissolved, rendering it unusable. As I watch the paper tube’s gradual transformation into liquid saturated pulp, I make a mental note to purchase a reusable metal straw. Given the recent change in straw materials intended to eliminate plastic waste, I fear I will never enjoy an iced coffee again without one. The effort Starbucks put into switching their materials prompted me to look into the lasting impact of the anti-plastic straw efforts. 

The jump away from plastic has been a part of the global movement known as #breakfreefromplastic. The general idea is that by eliminating the use of plastic (much of which comes from straws) from businesses, we are able to eliminate waste and pollution from oceans, effectively slowing down the unavoidable effects of climate change. This paints a pretty picture filled with fish swimming through pristine waters and happy turtles, digestion uninhibited by the trash lodged in the esophagus.  But is this picture achievable simply through these means?

The reality of the situation is a bit different than campaigns are letting on. Plastic straws are a major contributor to pollution. They are one of the top ten items found during beach cleanups. According to a National Geographic statistic, the world produced 322 million tons of plastic in the year 2015. Given the sheer volume of plastic drifting through our oceans, this movement is not baseless. However, it should not be treated as a simple solution to an environmental crisis. We are essentially slapping a Nexcare over a gushing artery.

It is safe to assume that the focus of the public should not be limited to straws. By focusing on limiting straw distribution, attention is directed away from the issue of waste disposal, something that the American Chemistry Council believes to be crucial.

As far as garbage disposal goes, straws are tricky. As waste is being transferred to various waste facilities, some is always lost. Straws are particularly susceptible to this because of their dimensions. Narrow enough to slip through slits in plastic trash bags, and light enough to be blown seaward, straws account for a great deal of the litter lost along the way. This litter makes its way to oceans and breaks into shards rather than breaking down, making it easily ingestible for sea life.

As far as the movements to eventually slow the effects of climate change goes, there are more directly related problems. The waste buildup is detrimental but the copious amounts of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere are far more consequential. The Carbon Majors Report released data indicating that 70% of emissions since 1988 can be traced back to around 100 major companies, the highest being ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron. The most powerful solution would be to place pressure on these companies’ investors to move away from fossil fuels and look to renewable energy.

The #breakfreefromplastic movement is rooted in a desire to improve an at-risk planet. Logistically, it checks all of the boxes required of a modern movement. It is social media based, allowing for low effort participation. The grunt work is left to major corporations like Starbucks as they are pressured to devise a new, eco-friendly system.  Since straws are the only plastic target, the goal feels refined enough to be achievable.


However, it is essential to remember that there is so much more to be done. A seemingly simple solution is not always the most effective.


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