Skip the Straws

By Emma Chen

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For some, it was the viral video of a marine biologist removing a straw from a sea turtle’s nostril. For millennials, it was for an aesthetic Instagram feed supporting the #StopSucking campaign. For NYC councilman Rafael Espinal, it was a whale washed ashore last April with over 60 pounds of trash inside of it. Whatever the reason, concern regarding the negative impact plastic straws have on the planet has soared over the past year.

On July 9, 2018, Starbucks announced that they would eliminate single-use plastic straws from over 28,000 of its stores, and from all stores globally by 2020. In place of plastic straws, a new strawless lid will be implemented in 2019, along with alternative-material straw options.

Starbucks’ announcement to eliminate plastic straws may seem like a bold move, but a national movement to mitigate the environmental repercussions of plastic straw use has been building up for several years. The movement gained momentum in 2015 when a video of a plastic straw lodged in a sea turtle’s nose received 30.7 million views on YouTube. Plastic straws largely contribute to ocean pollution because most of them are never recycled. Since plastic straws are made of thin material, they break down into smaller plastic particles quickly, which are then ingested by birds, whales, and other species of marine life. Not only does plastic pose a danger to the marine life, but it also threatens the health of the humans, since plastic has been found in large quantities inside fish sold at supermarkets.

Will Starbucks’ decision to ban plastic straws by transitioning to the newly designed lids actually help the environment? The new lids are made of plastic too, but they are recyclable, unlike the plastic straw. While compostable straws are biodegradable, they are only beneficial to the extent that they end up in an appropriate composting facility, to which many cities lack access.

On May 23, 2018, NYC councilman Rafael Espinal introduced a new bill proposing a ban on plastic straws in restaurants, bars and cafes across the city. From Espinal’s perspective, if horrendous air pollution problems in the US resulted in legislation to govern air quality standards in the 1970s, then plastic pollution should also necessitate government action to initiate a large-scale change in the behavior of corporations and consumers.

Every argument has another side. Saving the earth is important, but disability rights should not be overlooked in the process. While straws are a luxury for most people, for some, they are a necessity. Many people with disabilities rely on plastic straws, which provide them with safety and independence. Despite alternative straws options, the majority of them are unsuitable for those with disabilities, being either too hard for those with difficulty controlling their bite or too soft that they become a choking hazard. Hence, when businesses are banned from providing plastic straws, they are limiting the experiences of customers with disabilities.

There are always less drastic solutions for reducing plastic waste. Restaurants can adopt a straw-on-request policy to save money on the more expensive paper and biodegradable straws while sending a strong message to customers about the environmental impacts of a plastic straw.

One plastic straw may not seem like a big deal, but the horror of half a billion plastic straws disposed (EcoCycle) every day after only a few minutes of use is inevitably damaging our environment. Bans prompt industries and consumers to rethink their consumption, however, an outright ban on plastic straws is not the only way to fight pollution. No single solution makes everyone happy, but different tactics can be implemented to account for the needs of as many different groups of people as possible.

Barnard Bulletin