Rethinking Plastic Straw Bans
In a world where we're fast closing in on the tipping points of climate change, where all signs point to us barreling toward irreversible environmental damage, we see huge numbers of various initiatives and plans being tossed around and often implemented. While the deep systemic changes needed to make a real difference are moving at a glacial pace at best, lots of smaller local environmental initiatives are passing. And a lot of these happen to be bans on plastic straws. Plastic drinking straws, say many people, are the low-hanging fruit of environmental catastrophe, a place where a small change can make a big difference. Today we're going to look at the science behind these bans to determine whether they truly are the best place to focus our efforts — or merely just the easiest.
I would like to point out that I agree 100% with the motivations of every listener out there who does choose alternatives to plastic straws, and with those who support plastic straw bans. I believe your intentions are exactly right on track, and I love every one of you. The purpose of this episode is not to criticize your actions, but rather to point out hidden weaknesses in this particular type of activism and to suggest improvements and alternatives that will better accomplish our shared goals.
Let's get started by characterizing the scope of the problem that plastic straws create. The bans almost always cite ocean plastics as the trouble area, so we'll focus on that. Skeptoid #665 "Ocean Plastics: Facts and Falsehoods" covered many details in depth that we need for this topic. We know that about 8 million metric tons of plastic makes it into the oceans every year, nearly all of it from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and a handful of other developing nations that do not properly manage their waste. Figuring out how much of that consists of straws is harder, but the most popularly cited study gives the figure as .025 percent, or about 2,000 metric tons. The United States is responsible for somewhat less than 1% of the plastic in the oceans, so probably less than 20 tons of straws. 20 tons is still a lot of straws; in fact, at about .42 grams apiece, it's around 45 million straws per year. That's about 1 in 3,750 of the ~120 billion straws that Americans use each year. So that's our final answer: about 1 in 3,750 straws ends up where we don't want it to, and that number is probably in the same ballpark for other nations who follow similar waste management practices to the United States. Here, where we simply don't mismanage our waste through large-scale dumping of trash into rivers so it can flow into the ocean, plastic straw bans are a solution in search of a problem.
(Note to be careful when researching this — or anything else: the most widely given number of straws used by Americans is 500 million per day. It's a bogus number, despite being copy-and-pasted into virtually every news article on these bans. Industry research groups say 329 million per day, thus the 120 billion per year number given here.)
If you're curious why an item that makes up such an infinitesimal proportion of plastic trash became the target of such aggressive bans, and why those bans always cite ocean plastics even in landlocked states, you're in luck. It turns out that we are able to track this one down to exactly the event that triggered it. And like so many movements in popular culture, the genesis of plastic straw bans had very little to do with science and much to do with emotion. In 2015, a marine biology research team was in a boat off Costa Rica studying sea turtle mating. They noticed that one had some kind of debris stuck in its nostril. The YouTube video of what happened next went viral. As of this writing, it has nearly 40 million views.
The turtle had ingested a 10cm (4 inch) plastic straw or stirring stick, and in spitting it back out had somehow managed to send it out the wrong passageway and it got stuck in its nose. For 8 minutes, the team wrestled with it using the pliers on a multitool, with the turtle cringing, squirming, sneezing, and bleeding the whole time. It's hard to watch. Fortunately it has a happy ending: the straw finally pops out, the bleeding stops, and the team disinfected it and observed the turtle for a while before releasing it, whereupon it swam happily away.
The emotional impact of this video is what put plastic straws on the public's radar. Within days of the video being posted on YouTube (August 10, 2015), news sites everywhere were showing it. From The Telegraph on August 14:
From National Geographic on August 17:
And from The Washington Post on the same day:
How did this impact bans on plastic straws? You can use tools such as the Google news search and Google Trends to find out; set a custom date range, then sort the results by date. The answer is that it took just over a year after the turtle video that the first bans on plastic straws began to appear in newspapers. Prior to the turtle video, the news was virtually devoid of any thoughts of banning plastic straws. So, the data does appear to support that we have one unlucky turtle to thank.
Straws made from alternative materials is an explosively growing industry. Most are glued paper and come from China, but domestic producers create them as well from paper, cellulose, hay, even crushed avocado seeds, and doubtless other materials. So far, very few of them get good results. They're rough on the lips and they quickly get soggy and dissolve. Personally I don't see this as a show stopper. The alternatives are terrible for now, but as in all development processes, we have to go through the steps of doing things badly before we learn to do them well. Future alternative straw materials will probably match the comfort and performance of plastic straws. They're certainly not close to it yet; however, there are non-disposable metal straws (for the truly hardcore straw lover) that have good performance, but carrying around your own straw every day is a prospect that appeals to very few people.
Beyond the very significant fact that we don't yet have a viable alternative, there are two fundamental problems with banning plastic straws. The first problem is the simple one: the belief that plastic straws are a significant part of some apocalyptic problem. They're not. How big of a problem plastic in the environment truly is is generally greatly exaggerated — and again, I refer you back to episode #665 for all the data backing this. As the role in that problem played by Americans and most other Western nations is tiny, there's nothing that changes in Western consumer behavior can do to impact it. Even if there was, straws are simply statistically insignificant as a contributor. Thus, plastic straw bans in Western nations have no appreciable capacity to accomplish anything useful, except making their practitioners feel good about themselves.
The second fundamental problem with plastic straw bans is borne out by economic theory. This is the same point that was central to episode #695, "Fighting Global Warming with Economics". This is that people act in their self interest, and that any solution to any problem that depends on people acting against their self-interest and in the public interest instead, is doomed to fail — as centuries of human history have proven. Plastic straws are cheap, ubiquitous, convenient, and they perform extremely well. The alternatives fail on all those points. Given a choice, people will always choose the plastic straws — a small number of people will be loud and proud about their embrace of alternatives, but economic theory and history combine to show us that they will always be in the minority. This dooms plastic straw bans to the "tragedy of the commons" in which every act of altruism by one person incentivizes someone else to take the opposite action. Your purchase of a Prius affects supply and demand so that the next person gets a better deal when he chooses a gigantic pickup. Thus, a plastic straw ban can only work if it is imposed by law upon a majority who don't want it, and it would be a tenuous law as it would produce none of the intended environmental benefits.
Now, lest you charge that I'm a shill for Big Plastic Straws, a charge that some listeners will insist upon no matter how this episode concludes, keep in mind that this show regularly talks about global warming as the greatest threat to our environment and to our economy. We must get off of fossil fuels as aggressively as possible. We must ultimately stop all extraction of oil. Therefore we must find alternatives to petrochemical-based plastics and continue to grow the efficiency at which we recycle our existing plastic. These are all difficult problems to solve. Another common theme found in these Skeptoid episodes is that solving difficult problems requires precise understanding of the nature of those problems. When we mischaracterize a problem, we hamper our ability to devise effective solutions. Bans on plastic straws and plastic bags are emotionally satisfying for some people, but the data is unequivocal that they are not useful components of any meaningful solution. Rather, they divert attention away from the things people should be focusing on, and give a false sense of relief to people who now feel they've accomplished something and their duty is done. Again, think back to episode #419 on slacktivism. Research has clearly shown that ineffective activism actually does more harm than good, because those who engage in it are then less likely than other people to engage in useful activism.
So let's conclude with what that useful activism should look like. As we discussed in detail in episode #665, NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) says there are two threats to the ocean which are both far greater and more immediate than plastics: overfishing and global warming with its attendant acidification, both of which threaten countless entire species. If you care about the ocean, these are both things you can absolutely help with, and that plastic straw bans don't. The one type of plastic remediation that NOAA does recommend is participating in local beach cleanups. See all that litter on the beach? It didn't come from inland restaurants; it came from people littering on the beach. It's mostly food containers, followed by plastic bottles and caps, paper products, plates and cups, and finally a few straws too. Even if you replace those plastic straws inthe beach with glued paper straws, you'll still have just as much litter. So if you want to help, and you're going to be visiting a beach town, sign up for a community beach cleanup project. Help the oceans by fighting global warming at the ballot box, and help keep our coastlines clean with a fun weekend volunteer project. These are projects where activism truly counts.
Cite this article:
Copyright ©2020 Skeptoid Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved.