WASHINGTON (Circa) — Environmental activists have spent years pressuring corporations and politicians to take action against plastic waste, and they have recently begun racking up victories with voluntary and local government-mandated bans on plastic straws, but that success has sparked a backlash not only from their traditional conservative foes but from many with disabilities who say such policies will impose unnecessary hardships on them.
Last week, the city council in Santa Barbara, California was set to adopt a ban on polystyrene and plastic straws, an ordinance that had faced criticism and disdain from many on the right, but the vote was pushed back to allow local lawmakers to rework some language, reportedly including disability protections and possibly expanding it to include plastic stirrers.
While the prospective Santa Barbara ban remains in limbo until September, other localities in California are already at work on implementing their own restrictions on plastic straw use. The San Francisco board of supervisors voted last week to prohibit plastic straws and some takeout containers, but a second vote is required this week to finalize it. A possible ban has also been floated at the state level.
A similar prohibition recently took effect in Seattle, and municipalities in New Jersey and Florida have approved restrictions as well. The straw-free movement has spread internationally too, with debates on the issue broached in New York City, Canada, the European Union, and the United Kingdom.
In addition to government action, many major corporations in the food service business have begun scaling back or eliminating their straw use. Earlier this month, Starbucks announced it will phase out plastic straws by 2020, replacing them with a sippy cup-style lid made from a recyclable plastic material. Hyatt, Marriott, and Hilton hotel chains are also working to curtail reliance on plastic straws, as are American Airlines and Alaska Airlines.
Environmentalists have celebrated these announcements, but the opposition is growing as well, fueling a heated political debate over the tangible and intangible costs of scaling back America’s appetite for single-use plastic products.
Researchers estimate 8 to 9 million tons of plastic waste flow into the oceans each year, and most of it comes from rivers in Asia and Africa. Straws are far from the leading driver of that figure, with items like fishing gear, plastic bags, and balloons making up larger chunks of it, but much of the recent public policy discussion has zeroed in on plastic straws, stirrers, and utensils.
“The step is to move toward banning these types of single-use plastics,” said Julie Andersen, global executive director of the Plastic Oceans Foundation. “What I always say is with the straw, banning that is starting to create the social acceptance of changing how we think about single-use plastics.”
According to Harlin Savage, communications director for Eco-Cycle, many plastic products are necessary, serve important uses in society, and difficult to replace. Plastic packaging, straws, and single-use utensils are ubiquitous but in most cases easily replaceable with other materials.
“When you’re trying to get a handle on this big global problem, you want to start with plastics that are non-essential, used for a few seconds or minutes, and for which there are better alternatives,” she said.
Straws can be a “gateway conversation-starter” for people to discuss the broader issue of plastic pollution in social settings, according to Dune Ives, executive director of Lonely Whale, an organization focused on voluntary market-based adoption of alternatives to plastic products. She has found businesses are very receptive to the idea, and local governments have followed their lead
“I think what happens in these cases where the market starts to move in one direction, policy-makers take note,” she said.
Critics question how big of an environmental danger plastic straws really pose. One statistic often cited by some advocates for straw bans—that Americans use an eye-popping 500 million straws a day—is based on a questionable calculation made by a 9-year-old nearly a decade ago.
That 9-year-old—now 17-year-old Milo Cress—stands by his math, which was extrapolated from annual straw production data a few plastic manufacturers provided, and he has since started an organization aimed at convincing businesses and governments to stop using plastic straws.
“It’s something that a lot of people don’t really get unless they do active research on it,” Cress told the Daily Beast last week. “I was certainly guilty of not thinking about what happened to it [straws] when I threw them away.”
The strongest objections to the anti-straw movement have come from advocates for those with disabilities, who have pushed back forcefully against the notion that plastic straws are expendable conveniences.
“The basic premise of the community’s concern is that when blanket policies like these are put in place, they don’t take into account the individual needs of people with disabilities,” said Kathryn Carroll, a policy analyst with the Center for Disability Rights. “While we want to protect the environment like everybody else, that’s our concern.”
Disability rights groups say some cannot rely on other kinds of straws, many of which lack the combination of flexibility and durability a bendable plastic straw offers. Paper straws can degrade too quickly, metal straws can be too hard, and glass straws shatter too easily. Other options like straws made from pasta or corn raise potential allergy issues.
Advocates recognize the lack of ideal alternatives for those with disabilities, but they believe a solution can be found. Andersen suggested the move toward straw bans could spur innovation.
“In our economic system, those improvements come when there is demand,” she said. “By putting a plastic straw ban in place, you then have these alternatives come about and they get better and better.”
Including disability rights groups in the conversation early in the process can help navigate these challenges, and some cities have been more proactive than others in doing so.
“We absolutely do not want to cause any harm to communities of people who are disabled,” Savage said.
In cities and states where straw bans are under consideration or already in place, officials say they are aware of the concerns raised by disability rights groups and are working to address them. The Seattle ordinance automatically exempts those with medical needs, and it is one of the issues Santa Barbara city officials are now reassessing.
Even a well-crafted exception to the policy is less than ideal, though, according to Carroll, because it still requires them to do something those without disabilities do not by having to ask for the straw.
“It’s an additional burden on people with disabilities,” she said, adding that she also fears restaurants will not make the plastic straws available if there is not some enforcement mechanism requiring it.
“I worry that in practice, it may not provide the access to straws that people need,” She said.
Beyond the practical problems some with disabilities would face in a strawless-society, conservative critics object ideologically to the government telling them how to sip their soda, decrying it as nanny-state extremism with minimal impact on the environment.
“Like many things the government does, or fails to do, this isn’t even about straws,” wrote journalist Nicole Russell in a recent Washington Examiner op-ed. “It’s about how much right the government has to tell a restaurant what to do or sell. As long as patrons aren’t contracting food poison or dining in the midst of rat feces (and one could even make a case that this isn’t the government’s business either) regulations should remain at a minimum.”
However, Ives emphasized the big businesses—Starbucks, McDonald’s, Disney—that are now discussing voluntary plastic straw restrictions without government pressure.
“The thing about this that I really love is it’s the market,” she said. “Conservative groups like it when the market leads the way.”
Under the ordinance considered in Santa Barbara, violation of the law could carry a penalty of up to six months in jail. Though that prospect has drawn mockery and indignation on social media, officials there stress they do not actually intend to lock anyone up over straw use.
“All of our ordinances make reference to the municipal code section that discusses enforcement and penalties,” Mayor Cathy Morillo told local news site Noozhawk. “However, I can say clearly that no one is going to get a $1,000 fine or go to jail because they use a plastic straw or give one to a customer.”
Opponents are unmoved by that assurance.
“Even when jail time is not an explicitly authorized punishment, a law will still require enforcement,” wrote Christian Britschgi, an assistant editor for libertarian news site Reason. “That increases the likelihood of police encounters—and, thus, the chances that someone will get hurt in the course of such an encounter. One need only remember the cases of Eric Garner (killed by police who were arresting him for selling untaxed cigarettes) or Philando Castile (shot to death during a routine traffic stop) to know that this is a possibility.”
Some restaurant owners have objected to eliminating plastic straws either because alternative materials would raise their costs significantly or because they sell products, such as bubble tea or milkshakes, that cannot easily be drunk with a flimsy, narrow paper straw. According to Andersen, restauranteurs in communities that have enacted bans have not been negatively impacted.
“The restaurants are not suffering the economic loss as they expected,” she said.
Other experts question the environmental benefits afforded by accepting the inconvenience of using a soggy paper straw or schlepping around a reusable metal one. Manufacturing the alternative materials produces pollutants too, and there is no guarantee customers will dispose of them properly for recycling.
The sippy cup lids Starbucks has unveiled will also require a significant amount of plastic, but the coffee chain maintains they will be easier to recycle than straws, which can get lost easily in the mechanical sorting process.
“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, in a statement. “Starbucks is finally drawing a line in the sand and creating a mold for other large brands to follow. We are raising the water line for what’s acceptable and inspiring our peers to follow suit.”
Environmentalists acknowledge Americans using paper straws will not save the oceans on its own, but they argue a ban is a vital symbolic step toward eliminating other commonly-used plastic items.
“The straw, it’s a small change in our habit. To force behavioral change to where it actual impacts what you want is going to be harder to adopt,” Andersen said.
According to a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum, at the rate humanity is dumping plastics in the ocean, they will outweigh fish pound-for-pound by 2050.
“We have more and more plastics and we can’t dispose of them in a responsible, sustainable way,” Savage said.
Andersen likened the approach to anti-smoking campaigns. People used to be allowed to smoke pretty much anywhere, but it was gradually banned in places where not smoking represented a minor inconvenience like elevators and airplanes, then lobbies and restaurants and public spaces. That first step has to be taken somewhere.
“It’s a shift on a global level to change how we think about plastic,” she said. “It’s not as disposable as we thought it was. It doesn’t go away.”