Are Straw Laws Enough to Save Our Oceans?

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We think it’s safe to say that you’ve seen firsthand or heard about how plastic-straw ordinances and bans are going into effect across the Unites States. The topic has been surging over the last few years because a plastic straw takes about 200 years to decompose. They end up in landfills or in the ocean, where they kill sea turtles and other species. According to Business Insider, 500 million straws are used daily in the U.S. — that's 182.5 billion per year. With the U.S. population around 327 million, that means each person is using over 500 straws per year, or more than one straw per day! We won’t pass judgment but assume that includes all of us. Perhaps you, too?

The ordinances are interesting but tough to summarize because they vary by state, county, and city, and they don’t apply uniformly to all businesses of all sizes. They’re also much more comprehensive than people think. They don’t address just straws; they address other plastic items, including containers, and may require establishments to provide compost bins. Essentially, the bans are set up to stop the sale or distribution of plastic beverage straws, making it unlawful for any food/beverage provider to give plastics to any guest on their premises except upon request. The cities leading the charge are in California, Oregon, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Florida, and Washington; Washington D.C., is up there, too. California has more than 20 cities enacting their own iterations, including Santa Barbara and Carpinteria.

Reader’s Digest has reported that there are at least 22 big businesses adopting straw bans, among them McDonald's, Starbucks, Hyatt, Ikea, Whole Foods, and American, United, and Delta airlines. In 2018, Dignity Health eliminated more than 4 million single-use straws and stirrers from their cafeterias. And starting in 2019, Farmer Brothers no longer offered its customers single-use plastic straws or stirrers, and now provides sustainable options instead. Pacific Gas and Electric Company is also eliminating all single-use straws and stirrers from its facilities and conference centers. Implementing change in the workplace is a popular example of progress, even if it's limited to a smaller control group of people, like employees.

A top-down approach like this at these businesses won’t be enough on its own, though. There has to be a bottom-up approach, as well, which is potentially even more powerful. Young people seem to be on board and many are speaking out, implementing actions that are even louder than their words. One notable example is Shelby O’Neil, National Gold Award Girl Scout, current Berkeley University student, and founder of Jr. Ocean Guardians. Shelby earned her Gold Award with a campaign to push major corporations, as well as governments, to ban the use of plastics in the workplace. She is worried about scientists’ predictions that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. That's just three decades away, in most of our and our children's lifetime.

"With the U.S. population around 327 million, that means each person is using over 500 straws per year, or more than one straw per day!"

While straws alone will not bring the ocean to this level of pollution, Shelby and others view them as a gateway into shifting the mindset for a better and more sustainable future. Straws get people talking. In fact, Shelby is challenging people and companies not just to say "no" to single-use plastic straws this November, but to proudly participate in the #nostrawnovember campaign. Because of these efforts, she and Jr. Ocean Guardians are able to eliminate millions of single-use plastic straws each year — a profound impact, if you ask us.

Billions of Plastic Bags — Every Year

Even after these impressive calls to action and their acceptance in both corporate and governmental settings, the straw topic remains controversial, especially when measured against the overall volume of plastic that ends up polluting the environment from all waste products. Business Insider mentions that less than 9% of all of the plastic we use every day gets recycled; that means 91% of it ends up in landfills or in the ocean. People consume single-use plastic cups, lids, utensils, stirrers, and bags constantly. In fact, worldwide shoppers use approximately 500 billion single-use plastic bags per year. And the usual large cup of cold brew comes with a (figurative) ton of plastic — straw aside — so when people are disposing of plastics incorrectly, there is a lot of work cut out for everyone.

We get it. Our routinely hectic lives are demanding, and grabbing bottled water and fast food or ordering a meal and groceries for delivery are all embedded into the behavioral fabric of society. Those delivery boxes and containers have plastics. The reality is that we are at odds today because there are increasing demands for faster availability of food and other goods, yet this is a time when eco-friendly packaging and productive recycling behaviors are not yet widespread. That's because this change is still new, and this change is still new because regulations and trends take time to catch on, which is an American hallmark. States, cities, and businesses may function autonomously, and trends don’t always work for everyone at the same time.

Ordinances and bans have also been criticized because of what seems like a misplaced emphasis on straws, but not enough on stirrers and the plastic products that are not subject to the bans. Some say that it will take much more than banning plastic straws to make a dent and that we need an army of people whose small steps forward will accumulate over time. This is the exact debate: Is it still worth marching forward, then, even if hurdles are looming? We think it is.

But why? And how? Because people generally do care about the environment enough to make conscious choices so long as they’re not (too) inconvenienced. Meaning that when food and beverage companies are able to seamlessly offer products with glass, recyclable paper, bamboo, and other biodegradable materials, it will become completely accepted that plastics are going away. Some restaurant owners have already made the switch from plastics and are proudly reporting lower operating costs, which could help incentivize businesses over the next three to five years to be more environmentally conscious. It’s very possible that we will see more progress in the next five years than we have in the last five, which is yet another reason to not focus so much on critiquing the subject of straws. As we and Shelby agree, this is simply paving the way for further action. What better time than now, when we are at least aware of the true impacts our lives have on our planet and our oceans?

We ask that you consider what is happening around you and think about how you can do your part. If you’re ever in need of a great gift idea, consider a reusable water bottle or rambler with a metal straw. Water that stays cold is better anyway, right?

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Molly My

Molly My is the founder and editor of women's lifestyle magazine, Molly My Mag, which redefines publishing... See Full Bio

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