Straw bans seen as tackling a ‘gateway plastic’ – USAPosted on August 3, 2018 by DrRossH in Plastic Straws
That’s how some environmentalists and government leaders pushing bans on plastic straws describe them, as a way to prompt bigger questions about use, or misuse, of disposable plastics.
They see straws as a problem on their own — they’re consistently among Ocean Conservancy’s top 10 items of beach litter — but their constant presence sticking out of your drink gives them a bigger symbolic value.
“We’ve always known that the plastic straw is a gateway plastic for a broader conversation on single-use plastics,” said Dune Ives, executive director of the Lonely Whale Foundation, which spearheaded a “Strawless in Seattle” campaign and is working in other cities. “It’s not about the straw entirely. It’s about how we see single-use plastics in our lives.”
Whatever its role, gateway or not, the humble polymer straw has been getting a lot of attention.
On July 1, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban plastic straws and cutlery, and recent weeks have seen announcements from major restaurants and hotel chains.
Starbucks, for example, announced July 9 it was eliminating plastic straws in its 28,000 locations by 2020, Marriott said July 18 it was phasing out disposable plastic straws by July 2019, and McDonald’s is getting rid of them in the United Kingdom and Ireland and testing alternatives in the United States.
Governments, too, are active. The European Union and Taiwan in recent months have proposed bans on plastic straws and cutlery as part of restrictions on the most common single-use plastic items found in ocean litter.
Closer to home, New York City and San Francisco are considering bans. Hawaii’s Legislature rejected a ban this year, while California’s state Assembly passed a relatively mild plastic straw law May 30 that requires full-service restaurants — but not fast food cafes — to give out straws only upon request.
“It’s critical that we reduce the negative effects of plastic pollution,” said Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon, who noted plastic straws are the sixth most common item collected in California beach cleanups and that studies are finding microscopic bits of plastic marine litter inside fish sold in the state’s markets.
“By removing the default behavior of providing straws with every drink, consumers have an opportunity to make a deliberate, small change,” said Calderon, a Democrat who added that he wants to pursue stricter straw legislation. “It’s a small but significant step forward.”
Industry: Ban ’won’t solve’ problem
The plastics industry is taking a nuanced position — arguing against wasteful use of straws but also arguing against bans, saying they focus on the wrong problem.
“Across the spectrum there is a lot of interest in reducing waste right now, and in that context we understand why people are looking at straws,” said Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council in Washington.
“At the same time, if our objective is to keep plastics out of the ocean, we need to focus our efforts where most plastics are getting into the ocean,” said Russell. “And straw bans won’t solve that problem.”
Instead, ACC advocates a focus on improving waste management and collection systems in developing countries that contribute the lion’s share of marine plastic waste.
Groups like Ocean Conservancy say that half of the 8 million tons of plastic released into the oceans each year come from five rapidly developing nations in Asia.
“Experts have determined the vast majority of ocean plastics come from areas where rapid population growth and an expanding consumer economy are outpacing systems to manage waste,” Russell said. “That’s why plastics makers are investing in solutions to capture and create value from waste, together with governments, nonprofits and other stakeholders.”
The Plastics Industry Association said in a statement that it favors letting businesses decide if they want a straw-upon-request policy.
“We think bans can cause apathy,” the Washington-based association said. “They license people to believe ‘it’s not my problem,’ when caring for the environment is everyone’s problem.”
Both plastics associations said ban advocates should consider the environmental impact of alternatives, like paper straws with a plastic lining.
While they said they’re not aware of any studies specifically looking at straws, they note other research has found that packaging alternatives to plastic can sometimes have a greater environmental impact.
“We encourage those considering or advocating for plastics replacements to conduct a thorough evaluation,” Russell said. “Plastics often help to reduce energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and waste. Of course, reducing litter is important, too. Studies have shown people are actually more likely to litter items they think are biodegradable.”
Size of the problem
The size of the straw problem is also subject to debate.
The Plastics Industry Association disputes the widely cited figure that the U.S. uses 500 million straws a day, arguing that its own analysis of Nielson data from May 2017 to May 2018 estimates that only 16 million straws a day are sold in the United States, or just 3 percent of the 500 million figure.
Other research from consulting groups puts the figure between 170 million and 390 million.
“Using the number of straws sold is the strongest, most reliable proxy for straws that are used,” the plastics association said. “Therefore, the Nielsen data provides a more accurate, concrete depiction of the number of plastic straws used every day in the U.S.”
The association said it’s not clear how much of U.S. plastics production goes to straws alone.
It said about 40 percent of U.S. plastic production goes into packaging broadly, with 3.9 percent going into food service and drink packaging, and 9.1 percent into food, spirits and tobacco products, which the association said could also include some straws.
Whatever the figures, both industry and environmental groups expect more public attention on straws.
Ives, from the Lonely Whale Foundation, said her group sees businesses driving the debate in the United States.
Lonely Whale is part of an initiative led by computer maker Dell Inc. to collect ocean-bound plastics and put it back into products and packaging. And she noted McDonald’s is doing research on finding a better solution to straw waste.
“We’re seeing those conversations happening more and more, and businesses are really leading the way,” she said.
Strawless in Seattle
Seattle officials, for their part, say their straw ban builds on a decade of work to reduce the “disposable, petroleum-based plastics going into the waste stream.”
The city in 2009 banned expanded polystyrene food containers, and later plastic bags, as part of efforts targeting to-go containers. Like Lonely Whale, city officials see the straw as good way to jump-start a conversation around waste.
“It is kind of the gateway plastic,” said Becca Fong, a communications and outreach specialist with Seattle Public Utilities. “It’s something that’s not completely necessary. There are some instances where you need a straw, but it really makes people pause and think … do I really need to have this [straw] to consume the item I want to consume?”
Ives said her group recognizes the value of plastics as a material but believes waste has gotten out of hand.
“There’s a lot of plastic that’s out there, a lot of plastic that’s good, for medical devices, for automobiles, for airplanes, so plastic is in our life,” Ives said. “It’s the single-use plastic items that are really doing harm to the marine environment.”