Over the last few months, a number of corporations, such as Starbucks, American Airlines, McDonald's, and Queen Elizabeth II, alongside several U.S. states, have pledged to phase out their use of plastic drinking straws in the coming years. It's a great win for the campaign responsible, which argues that straws aren't just a fancy way to take your drinks -- they're also a fancy way to kill the planet, courtesy of the fact that Americans use (and immediately trash) 500 million of them per day.
It's just too bad, then, that this campaign is based on bad statistics, lies, and a whole lotta deflection. Remember that figure about how we use 500 million straws a day? (You should, as it was only two sentences ago.) It turns out that comes from a telephone survey conducted by a nine-year-old in 2011. We don't know how many companies they called or what methodology they used to calculate this figure, but that hasn't stopped everyone from CNN to The Washington Post to National Geographic from citing it.
Our best guesstimate for many straws we use is roughly 175 million a day, just over a third of the figure that everyone is touting. It's still not great, sure, but the fact that we don't have any solid numbers in this debate highlights how crazy it is to place the entire onus on drinking straws, rather than industrial plastics or other, objectively worse trends.
When several marine experts were surveyed on what they considered to be the most prevalent forms of maritime pollution, they cited "fishing-related gear, balloons, and plastic bags," while other experts are worried about the problems posed by plastic bottles. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch comprises 46 percent fishing nets. Lost or abandoned crab posts catch and kill over 1.25 million blue crabs every year. We keep pulling half-eaten balloons out of the throats of birds and fish. The number of plastic bottles we use annually has spiked by 300 billion in the last decade. These are all very real problems with very real facts to back them up, but efforts to mark commercial fishing gear so that it can be traced back to its owner if it gets lost have stalled, we keep hosting mass balloon releases, and only ten states have container deposit laws (which can be attributed to the lobbying efforts of Big Beverage Container).
The reality of the situation is that straws just aren't the biggest problem we have. Even if the worst estimate of the environmental damage done by straws is true -- that our coastlines are covered in 8.3 billion of the tiny bastards -- that only accounts for 0.03 percent of the more than eight million tons of plastic garbage that enters the oceans every year. It's also incredibly disturbing that this campaign fails to account for the fact that plastic straws provide a simple, accessible means for many disabled people to drink (such as those who use wheelchairs or live with muscular disorders), and that asking them to remember their own straws (or risk not being able to drink at all), or deal with straws made of unsuitable materials such as metal or paper seems ... assholish, to say the least.
That's the problem, though. It's easier for us to lay the blame on a tiny contributor to pollution (in spite of the objective good they do) than it is to examine our larger habits surrounding single-use plastics or recycling, or even to look at the industries that commit much larger offenses on a daily basis.
The good news for the future is that our children won't have to watch videos of cutesy dolphins having errant straws being removed from their blowholes. The bad news is that not much else will have changed.
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