Hard on the heels of banning plastic bags, states and cities are being pressed by environmentalists to eliminate another consumer convenience — plastic straws. But objections from the plastics industry, restaurants and disability advocates have derailed or delayed some proposed straw bans.
Experts say cutting down on single-use plastic may be more about changing habits than changing laws. Three states — California, Hawaii and New York — have considered plastic straw legislation in 2018. Hawaii’s died, and the other two are pending. Seattle, Miami Beach, Oakland and more than a dozen other cities have either banned plastic straws or required customers to ask for one. New York City is also considering a ban.
The bans are not frivolous, as plastic has been found in fish, in the bellies of seabirds and in fresh drinking water as well. A viral video of scientists removing a straw from a sea turtle’s nostril has inflamed passions too. But at least one expert in the field of marine plastic suggests plastic straw bans may not make much of a dent in the problem.
Straws are an easy target for environmental change, though, because they’re considered nonessential. Kara Lavender Law, a research professor of oceanography at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Mass., said there’s plenty of evidence that throwaway plastics are getting into the ocean, as cleanup efforts find lots of straws, bottles, bags and food wrappers. The world’s largest accumulation of trash, dubbed the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” is more than 600,000 square miles, said a study in the journal Nature.
“Bans on straws are perceived as sort of low-hanging fruit, unnecessary items,” Law said. “Whether a ban is the right way to approach it is arguable. I’m not sure it’s the way we are going to solve the problem, but it’s an indication of the public will and the political will.”
Law and several others wrote a 2017 research paper on plastics for the journal Science Advances, estimating that since the 1960s when consumer plastics started being widely used, approximately 6,300 million metric tons of plastic waste has been generated worldwide. Only 9 percent of that has been recycled, 12 percent incinerated, and the rest of it dumped in landfills or directly into the environment.
Hawaii seemed like a logical target for plastic straw bans. The state depends on beaches and tourism and touts its pristine coasts, hardly a place where anyone would want to see discarded straws scattered about.
A bill to ban distribution and sale of plastic straws was introduced in January by state Sen. Mike Gabbard, a Democrat, and the legislation sailed through the Agriculture and Environment Committee, which he chairs. It failed to clear the Judiciary and Ways and Means committees.
Objections came from the Hawaii Food Industry Association, the Hawaii Restaurant Association, the Retail Merchants Association and the American Chemistry Council, all of which presented testimony in hearings about the bill.
“We all need to get better at reducing waste and educating the general public in proper disposal of trash, but this bill is not the solution,” the restaurant group said. “The alternate for plastic straws, whether it’s paper or reusable, is really not that available. Is the next step banning all disposable utensils?”
Environmental groups such as StrawFree, a Southern California group that is pushing reusable straws made from bamboo, say yes. They note that reusable water bottles are becoming a popular alternative to plastic and suggest that reusable utensils could become popular as well.
The American Chemistry Council also opposes plastic straw bans and recently suggested that an “opt-in” plan, under which diners must ask for a straw, is a better solution.
“Recycling, source reduction, recovery and conservation are all tools to help reduce litter/disposal,” said senior director Tim Shestek. “In this particular instance, we think an ‘on demand’ approach makes the most sense.”
Private companies are getting into the act, too. Bon Appetit, a chain of a thousand eateries, said it would ban plastic straws. But McDonald’s stockholders voted down a proposal backed by the consumer watchdog group SumOfUs calling for the company to “develop and implement substitutes for plastic straws.”
McDonald’s uses 95 million straws a day in the United States, the watchdog group said. In opposing the proposal, McDonald’s said it continues to look for “sustainable alternatives.” In fact, it is phasing in paper straws in the United Kingdom after the U.K. banned plastic straws. But McDonald’s urged a “no” vote in the United States, saying that the proposal was “unnecessary, redundant as to the Company’s current practices and initiatives.”
Many disability advocates oppose straw bans, noting that alternatives such as paper straws and reusable straws may not work as well for disabled people. Jessica Denise Grono of Phoenixville, Pa., who has cerebral palsy, said that without a straw, “I’d be forced to have someone pour a drink in my mouth. Only half would go in. A straw gives me a less messy and independent way to drink.”