Why Straw Bans Don’t Suck

For the past couple months, the debate on plastic straw bans has been in the limelight, for reasons good and bad. Straws are one of the many single-use plastics — use once, then throw away — and according to the Global Survey by the Ocean Conservancy, are one of the top 10 items picked up by clean-up crews on beaches. Not to mention, the heartbreaking video of a turtle with a straw stuck in its nose illustrating how thoughtless daily use of a product can create havoc in our environment. On the other hand, the disabled community needs straws of some type, and others in the environmental community, wonder if straw bans are a distraction from more important fights. 

Earthworks has documented tremendous climate, public health and environmental impacts from oil, gas and petrochemical production, and plastics are a growing market for the oil and gas industry. Although cities like Seattle and companies like Starbucks, have promised to ditch plastic straws, given the pushback the straw ban strategy is encountering from people of good will, the question still remains, “Are plastic straw bans a real solution?” In short, lifestyle change alone is not enough; but can be an important first step towards system change. Here’s why.

Fracking has created a cheap and abundant supply of ethane, the source material for plastics. With 99% of all plastics coming from oil and gas, ditching plastics is a strategy to transition away from climate and health polluting fossil fuels. By 2050, the oil and gas industry plans to increase plastics production by ⅓. With the construction of 264 planned US plastics producing facilities, the oil and gas industry would spend $164 billion to produce 34 billion metric tons of plastics. These investments will lock in plastics production for decades and increase global dependency on plastics. So, while fracking creates plastics, plastics in turn is fueling fracking.

In general, straws aren’t a new concept to human culture. The earliest recording of straws dates back to 5,000 years ago! Rye straws were used in the early 1800s and by 1888, Marvin Chester Stone created the paper straw, the precursor to the plastic straw. The problem is that today, over 500 million plastics straws are used daily, all of which are thrown away after a single use.

Banning plastic straws and bags may seem like a drop in the bucket, unless we think of these types of corporate and government actions as first steps towards reduction in the demand for plastics production. Individual lifestyle changes are as important with plastics as they are with energy consumption; they help us walk our talk and they point the way towards lasting solutions.  Refusing that one straw stops one piece of plastic; Starbucks refusing a million straws goes further, and in the end, we need to reduce demand for single-use plastics, full stop. A managed decline from oil and gas production is going to have to include a just transition away from single-use plastics.

From oceans to climate change, the straw ban also starts a much needed conversation around our unnecessary dependence on plastics. As we told Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson in an open letter this week, Starbucks needs to go much further than banning straws; the company needs to take action to reduce the amount of plastic in all of their products, eliminate problematic packaging altogether, and come up with a sustainable solution that is suitable for all. Earthworks is proud to stand with the Break Free From Plastics movement to transition  society at large away from all single-use plastics and reduce demand for oil, gas and petrochemical production.

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