The Starbucks Plastic Straw Ban Isn’t as Great as It Seems

Single-use plastic opponents are claiming a victory with Starbucks’ recent announcement that it will phase out plastic straws at all store locations by 2020. However, Christian Britschgi of Reason claims there’s an unexpected drawback to this plan: Starbucks is actually using more plastic in the sippy cup-style lids that will replace straws.

That’s a bummer for environmental advocates the world over, and it highlights the fact that the momentum behind straw bans is concealing some complicated truths.

#StopSucking

If you’re new to the straw conversation, let me catch you up: A lot of single-use plastic straws wind up in circulation every day — the exact number is a subject of dispute, since no reputable study has delved into the issue. These straws often end up in the waste stream, where many make their way into the ocean — ultimately harming marine wildlife.

While you may have seen dramatic photos or videos of animals like sea turtles with straws jammed in their noses, that’s not the worst part of the problem, if you can believe it. The bigger issue is that as straws get tossed around in the ocean and begin to break down, they form microplastics, which can be ingested by marine life of all sizes.

This problem isn’t limited to straws, which make up a tiny fraction of the garbage in the ocean – less than one percent by weight. All marine plastic is harmful.

But many people argue that straws make a great “gateway plastic” because of their high visibility, and they’re pushing for bans that require people to use compostable or reusable alternatives — like paper or plant plastics, metal, glass and silicone. Seems like a natural way to address a serious problem, right?

Not so fast: For one thing, straws aren’t a big part of the plastic waste stream overall. For another, the disability community has grave concerns about what this might mean for accessibility.

Some disabled people really do need single-use straws: They are the safest and most reliable option to allow them to stay hydrated. Though many agree that cutting back on plastic is a good thing, they still need plastic straws available as an option.

So let’s get back to Starbucks: As a multinational corporation with a formidable share of the beverage market, Starbucks is taking a huge step with its straw ban.

And the Reason article is a bit simplistic. What Britschgi doesn’t mention is that the type of plastic used in the lids is different — and moreover, that one reason straws are so pernicious in the environment is because their light weight makes them hard to process at recycling centers. They’re blowing away in the breeze, rather than entering the recycling stream. Britschgi also fails to mention that Starbucks is working on rolling out sustainable initiatives across its line of cups and other service products.

But the larger point isn’t wrong: Straw bans aren’t going to fix our global plastic obsession, and focusing on them to the exclusion of larger issues could be damaging in the long term. The rancor and ill will swirling around the straw discussion certainly isn’t producing the most thoughtful conversation about plastic waste.

The bottom line is that taking straws out of circulation doesn’t fix the larger problem: We extract too much oil and use it to make too much plastic. The waste stream starts far above consumers picking up an iced coffee at Starbucks. The entire supply chain is laden with plastic, from specialty packaging for the coffee shipped all over the world to the cling films used to protect foods in transit.

Food service may use up a lot of plastic. But it’s not the only culprit: Fishing nets and gear make up an alarming percentage of the Pacific Garbage Patch, for example. And the veggies on your plate probably came from a farm that uses plastics in handling and processing — not to mention burning petroleum fuel in its tractors and trucks.

More Than Straws

Consumers see and use only a small percentage of the plastic that goes into the products they engage with. To really dig in on our plastic problem, we need to hit every step of the supply chain.

That means encouraging companies to pursue plastic alternatives and more lightweight packaging to reduce the amount of plastic produced in the first place — and to rely on recycled plastics when it’s absolutely necessary to use plastic. Dell, for instance, started an innovative program that reclaims and recycle ocean plastic for packaging.

At the same time, we need to be conscious of the health and safety issues that make plastic such a miraculous substance when it’s used appropriately. For example, alternatives made from plant or milk proteins could trigger allergies. Meanwhile, single-use plastic medical supplies have radically improved access to safe, affordable medical care — from the safety needles phlebotomists use to draw blood to specialty autoclave packaging for keeping instruments sterile.

There are some situations in which plastic is definitely the most safe and reliable option, so let’s preserve plastic for the times when it’s needed as we keep thinking about ways to replace it.

How Can We Reduce Plastic Use?

To keep plastic out of the ocean, we need to make less of it, not just use less of it. It’s great to cut down on plastic in your daily life — I certainly do, and as someone who keeps close track of how much plastic I use, I’m sometimes dismayed by how hard it is to avoid. Why did my moisturizer come with a plastic seal inside the tub and a plastic strip around the outside?!

But I’m also aware that I’m at the bottom of the waste chain, not the top — and that’s why I push companies to stop making single-use plastic products, and to commit to seeking out eco-friendly alternatives wherever and whenever possible.

If you’ve rallied around the straw cause, this is your chance to think bigger: As Starbucks modifies its consumer products, for example, start asking how they package coffee and other supplies. Contact your local recycling center to find out how many of the materials you drop in the recycling are actually ending up in the garbage because they can’t be processed, are contaminated or have other issues. Ask around at work to find out how the supplies and products you use are packaged when they arrive — and if there’s plastic, consider pushing suppliers to do better.

And if you don’t personally need single-use petroleum-based straws, by all means request a biodegradeable alternative — and make sure it stays in the compost, not the trash — or pack your own reusable option!

Photo Credit: Nadine Shaabana/Unsplash

78 comments

Marie W
Marie W3 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Jeanne R
Jeanne Rogers8 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jeanne R
Jeanne Rogers8 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jeanne R
Jeanne Rogers8 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jeanne R
Jeanne Rogers8 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Latoya B
Latoya Brookins10 months ago

People in the comments make it sound like the disabled have to go on the black market to get straws now. Eco friendly bendable straws are much better than straight plastic ones and they're cheap.

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John W
John W10 months ago

Thanks

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Glennis W
Glennis W10 months ago

Hope they make it work everywhere Thank you for caring and shring

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Glennis W
Glennis W10 months ago

Very interesting article Thank you for caring and shring

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Glennis W
Glennis W10 months ago

They are banning all plastic straws at Aussie Take-Aways going paper Thank you for caring and shring

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