The Last Straw? An Anti-Plastic Movement Takes Hold


The summer of 2018 marks the newly notorious “straw ban” jump-started mostly by Starbucks’ decision to ditch their plastic drinking straws by 2020. This is just one story in the attempt to reduce plastic in packaging and food service, a movement we’ve been tracking for a while.

The Siren’s Song

Starbucks official statement says “Starbucks’ decision to phase out single-use plastic straws is a shining example of the important role that companies can play in stemming the tide of ocean plastic,” said Nicholas Mallos, director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program. To replace the iconic (non-recyclable) green straws, Starbucks enlisted designers to create a recyclable lid for the majority of their cool drinks. “By nature, the straw isn’t recyclable and the lid is, so we feel this decision is more sustainable and more socially responsible,” said Chris Milne, director of packaging sourcing for Starbucks.  “Customers who prefer or need a straw can request one made of alternative materials for use with any cold drink.”

The straw issue has very quickly become a feel-good social goalpost for laypeople’s eco-awareness, a symbol of single-use plastics - and an action that could be easily curtailed for those who see drinking straws as a convenience. However, the basis of this sudden tide is from an oft quoted statistics about straw use - 500 million a day - is based on a 9 year-old boy’s study from 2011, it has been repeated without check for years. The issue took hold quickly, and hashtags like #stopsucking have furthered the cause and pulled straws and single-use plastics to the forefront of consumers’ minds. “Plastic straws may not be the biggest threat to the ocean health … but we were actually hearing from our audiences about it,” said Aimee David, the director of Ocean Conservation Policy Strategies at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “This is something that really resonates from our visitors because they can feel it, touch it; it’s a positive action they can take.”

For those who study the effects of plastic on the environment, the idea is a start but the impact is negligible. The Ocean Conservancy’s 2017 Coastal Cleanup Report compiled beach cleanups around the world and found that the most common trash item found on beaches is cigarettes, followed by plastic bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, and bags. Straws and stirrers placed seventh on the list, at about 3 percent of the total trash. Bloomberg News estimates that on a global scale, straws would probably only account for 0.03 percent of total plastic waste by mass. Another study found that an estimated 46 percent of the debris in the ocean is abandoned fishing equipment. “Straws are a great way to start the conversation but all throwaway plastic, like lids, cups, containers, and packaging, is fueling the plastic pollution crisis."

Convenience vs Need

Straw bans and similar efforts have struck a deeply sensitive area for the disabled community, some of whom need these objects, packaging, and service methods to access every day experiences. Straws assist people with mobility, coordination, tone, and swallowing issues. “Straws represent independence for some disabled people who can’t drink on their own without one and would otherwise need the help of a caregiver to drink.” Beyond persons with disabilities, they assist the very young and the elderly.

The articulated straw actually originated from this idea, after a father noticed his young daughter having issues drinking from a straight straw. Ironically, the first order of his newly patented bendy straws went to a hospital to aid bed ridden patients. “The disability community is concerned with the ban because it was implemented without the input of their daily life experience,” says Katherine Carroll, policy analyst at the Rochester, New York-based Center for Disability Rights. Being able to consume a beverage safely is a real need. For non-disabled people, a straw is a convenience, and now an anti-symbol of eco-mindedness. Most companies who are banning straws (Starbucks, McDonalds, Disney parks, and others) say they will offer straws to customers who request them, which for disabled people, negates equity, and creates a new accessibility issue. A bigger concern is when an entire city, like Seattle, bans the method that people rely on, and installs fines for restaurants and companies who provide straws and plastic utensils to the public.  This has outraged disability activists and many straw replacements aren’t as adaptable for every use, or every person. It’s crucial to listen to those who will be most affected by the ban, and to come up with real, equitable and accessible ways for them to maintain their health and independence.

A taste of what’s to come

The straw ban has given conscientious consumers a rallying cry and is calling attention to the small ways many people can reduce their own footprints. It’s created action in large companies to find new solutions to single-use waste issues, and helped keep the issue in the spotlight.Will consumers turn their focus to other goods and services whose plastics and packaging are excessive? Our trend trackers believe there is movement in several large categories, where waste is a byproduct of consumption and both suppliers and consumers are finding ways to rethink, and reduce their use of plastic. Changing perceptions about the climate and our effects on it, and the social cache of taking charge of a change, may be turning the tide as to how far are consumers and companies willing to go, and who will lead the way.