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Editors' Picks Opinion

On Plastic Straw Bans

“Your state is teetering on the edge of armageddon, you nitwits, which may be why politicians are focusing on evil straws.” On Fox News’ The Five, Greg Gutfeld mocked the concept of banning plastic straws, which has recently become an object of fascination and consternation for a disparate group of lawmakers, corporations, fashion aficionados, and more.

In the summer of 2018, Seattle, Washington became the first major U.S. city to ban straws; presently, 15 cities have approved similar bans. Starbucks, Hyatt, Hilton, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, SeaWorld Entertainment, and Royal Caribbean Cruises, among others, all announced similar forthcoming bans. A recent Vogue magazine headline touted “11 Stylish, Sustainable Straws to Help You Cut Down on Single-Use Plastic” and the Instagram hashtag “#StopSucking,” (started by the environmental nonprofit, Lonely Whale, to promote its “Strawless Ocean” campaign) has over 46,000 posts and counting. Through Lonely Whale’s efforts, people are suddenly aware of the issues surrounding the six inches of tubular plastic that they previously sucked on and tossed with minimal thought.

Plastic pollution kills marine life and threatens ecosystems. An estimated 9 million tons of plastic enter the ocean yearly, a value that is expected to double by 2025. If current usage patterns persist, by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic than fish and the plastics industry will consume 20% of total oil production and 15% of the global annual carbon budget. The straw-less campaign contends that straws are an important starting point in solving the problem. Although it is difficult to quantify the proportion of straws in the total ocean plastic pollution, Lonely Whale points to the fact that they are among the top ten items found during beach cleanups and are widely used and improperly discarded. According to Lonely Whale, Americans use 500 million straws every day (a contested value estimated by other sources to fall more in the range of 170 million to 390 million per day, or 63 billion to 142 billion per year), most of which are not recycled due to limitations of mechanical sorting systems for dealing with lightweight plastics, and many of which end up in the ocean due to litter and improper garbage disposal. Dr. Julie Deardorff, lead organizer of Straw Free Jackson Hole, also stressed that plastic straw pollution (and plastic pollution in general) is concerning for river ecosystems as well, citing recent research that detected microplastics (small plastic particles less than 5 mm in diameter) in 75 to nearly 93 percent of samples (depending on the sampling method) taken from the Snake River, which starts in Wyoming and eventually ends in the Pacific Ocean. There are numerous sources of microplastics, including the breakdown of larger plastics such as straws, bags, and bottles.

The ubiquity of straws makes them a convenient and identifiable target. Lonely Whale does not contend that straws are the most significant or harmful source of pollution. Eliminating abandoned and discarded fishing gear, for example, might have a more significant impact in terms of reducing the sheer volume of plastic pollution and number of ocean creatures harmed, since it accounts for 79,000 metric tons of plastic in the Great Pacific garbage patch. Critics of the bans often point to estimates that straws account for only .02 percent of all plastic waste in the ocean, emphasizing the point that straw bans are not particularly high-yield environmental legislation. The Plastic Industries Association webpage says: “while anti-straw campaigns may bring attention to the problem, they are not long-term solutions to significant infrastructure issues, and they create a false sense of accomplishment.” It is difficult, however, to design a consumer and social media oriented campaign around industrial fishing equipment or other more systemic environmental issues.

Lonely Whale argues that reducing straw pollution will help the oceans and other national waterways, stressing that straws are a particularly needless form of pollution. The organization has also described straws as a “gateway plastic” that can grab consumer attention and hopefully prompt them to think about the wider issue of marine plastic pollution. The extent to which this theory will play out remains to be seen.

Municipal plastic straw bans illustrate on a micro level the shifting nature of environmental legislation in the United States. In 1970, President Richard Nixon established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), thereby creating a strong and defined role for the federal government in protecting the environment and public health. Bipartisan laws to protect clean air and water, public lands, wildlife, and other natural resources followed suit. The major environmental legislation that forms the bedrock of environmental protection in the US was passed primarily in the 1970s, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act. Aside from some revisions, amendments, and minor updates, major federal environmental legislation has been sparse in the 21st century. Under the Trump administration, these foundational laws are under attack and at risk of disappearing completely; the administration has already overturned or targeted 76 pieces of environmental legislation. Recent efforts in this regard have included weakening fuel-economy standards, cutting the NASA climate monitoring program, expunging mentions of climate change from many government webpages, and proposing a new “data transparency” rule to prevent the EPA from using most scientific research that addresses public health.

Due to hostility to environmentally protective legislation at the federal level, states and cities have assumed this role, with wide ranging results. Public support for environmental regulation is hardly uniform, geographically or politically: a survey by the Pew Research Center in 2014 found that only 38% of respondents in West Virginia and Wyoming say that stricter environmental regulations are “worth the cost,” while 70% of Vermonters, by comparison, agree with the statement. People who live in states that went for Obama in 2012 as well as those who live in wealthier states are more likely to favor environmental protection. Dr. Deardorff noted that while her campaign has had success in convincing over 25 restaurants in Jackson Hole to abandon plastic straws, this “would be difficult to replicate … in other parts of Wyoming.” Jackson Hole is in the only Wyoming county that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and while Dr. Deardorff said most restaurants are primarily concerned about the economics and consumer preferences of moving away from plastic straws, she has also encountered ideological opposition and a ‘don’t tell me what to do’ mentality.

Straw bans are just one example of how these disparities in opinion manifest in terms of policy across America. Only sixteen states have adopted state environmental policy acts that require state government actions to be evaluated for their potential impact on the environment and public health. After President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, just 17 states joined the US Climate Alliance, an organization that vowed to continue fighting climate change on a sub-national level. These states, predominantly led by Democratic governors (except for Maryland, Massachusetts, and Vermont), are at the forefront of climate and environment policy. Other states have seen these examples and taken pre-emptive action to prevent such legislation from passing in their areas. In August 2014, California became the first state to impose a statewide ban on plastic bags at large retail stores; seeing that example, by 2018 ten states had enacted retaliatory legislation forbidding similar plastic bag bans in their states. Increasingly in the U.S. most large cities are controlled by Democrats (78 percent of the nation’s 40 largest cities are controlled by Democrat-affiliated mayors) while most states are controlled by Republicans (Republicans control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office in 24 states). As residents of liberal cities increasingly turn to their local government to enact progressive policies, their conservative state governments are passing preemptive bills to prevent such actions. Thus the popular idea that cities are the future of sustainable action may be stymied by prevailing political forces.

Piecemeal environmental policy, however, cannot replace coordinated national action. Even if Seattle bans plastic straws and California succeeds in reducing greenhouse gas emission 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, the lack of a national environmental agenda remains a fundamental stumbling block to addressing burgeoning plastic pollution and rising greenhouse gas emissions. President Trump’s administration has even begun blocking effective state action, including voiding the California emissions standards– an ominous indication of the limitations states face in shaping their own environmental agenda.

In contrast to state legislation, company wide environmental actions have the potential to impact consumers across geographic and political boundaries. Starbucks has over 13,000 locations in the United States, with at least one store in every state. In contrast to state legislation, when multinational companies take up an environmental cause, it seems possible that this may cut across the divisions that make California’s environmental policy so different from, for example, Wyoming’s. However, research by the social media management company Sprout Social questions how big of an influence a company’s activism can really have. 66% of people say their opinions are not influenced by a brand’s stance on a social or political issue–but this difference is not uniform across liberals and conservatives. Liberal consumers expect brands to publicly support social causes, and are willing to support or boycott companies depending on these positions. A company’s political position is less important to conservative consumers. For companies, this can lead to the calculated choice that endorsing liberal causes likely wins them vocal support from those who agree, while those who disagree will silently grumble while they drink their (strawless) iced coffee anyway.

The concept that companies may engage in environmental altruism for their own commercial advantage is not lost on many observers. Dr. Roy Scranton, professor at Notre Dame University and author of several books on coping with climate change, described straw bans in an email to The Politic as “ineffectual gestures intended to do nothing but signal the virtue of the companies involved.” The social media campaign that was the centerpiece of Lonely Whale’s initiative does not ameliorate the perception that plastic straw-bans are superficial gestures. Posts featuring the “StopSucking” hashtag included one from an eco-straw company that suggested followers “obsessed with gold” should purchase the company’s gold stainless steel straws so that they can “rock those [Instagram] photos!;”  an eco-friendly homewares company posted a picture of a coconut with a copper colored metal straw stuck in the top against the backdrop of a tropical beach with the caption “zero waste travel goals–The only way to top drinking a fresh coconut on a tropical island is by adding one of our stainless steel straws…” The environmental movement often faces charges of elitism, and photos that trumpet plastic straw bans as a great way to improve tropical beach vacations do not counter that perception–neither do Vogue magazine articles that focus on the “chic” nature of reusable straws. Combining the perception that plastic straw bans are ineffectual for the environment with social media branding that focuses on opulent lifestyle choices threatens to push those who are skeptical about the environmental movement farther away.

Examining the specific issue of straw bans is edifying for the broader environmental movement, providing insight into the future of sub-national environmental legislation, the ability of individuals to shape global phenomena, and perceptions of elitism in environmentalism.  Proponents of straw bans are well-intentioned in seeking individual actions to address a substantial and concerning environmental issue. Focusing on a niche product, however, has the risk of trivializing the magnitude of the broader plastic pollution problem and makes straw bans ripe fodder for Fox news mockery. Advocates must decide whether in winning the straw ban battle, they may be losing a larger war for the environmental movement.