Blog  /  August 2018  /  The US Jumps on the Plastic Straw Ban-wagon

Blog Post Teaser

2018 has not been a good year for the plastic straw.  Environmental awareness campaigns have been gaining momentum across the globe, prompting a growing list of US cities and high-profile companies to enact a plastic straw ban.  What is the straw ban?  Who is participating? Is the ban enough to help the environment?  Read on for answers to these questions and more.


Principles Behind the Straw Ban

The anti-straw movement began as part of a larger effort by environmental advocacy groups (e.g., Lonely Whale, Surfrider Foundation) to protect marine life and the environment by reducing the amount of plastic waste produced, most of which ends up on beaches and in the oceans.  Along with plastic stirrers, single-use plastic straws – which take more than 400 years to biodegrade and often fall through the cracks of cities’ waste recycling processes due to their small size and low weight – make up around  7 percent of all plastic trash in the environment.  By some estimates, approximately 9 percent of plastic gets recycled, while only about 12 percent is incinerated.  The remaining 79 percent of plastic waste ends up in landfills or finds its way into oceans and other natural environments.  Currently, the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is a spot in the Pacific Ocean halfway between California and Hawaii that spans more than 600,000 square miles – about twice the size of Texas – and contains at least 79,000 tons of plastic.   In addition, there are at least four other (smaller) collections of plastic debris floating in the world’s oceans – conditions that will most likely intensify now that China is no longer accepting imports of recyclable plastic waste.  By 2050, the Plastic Pollution Coalition estimates the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight. 


Growth of the #StopSucking Movement

In July 2018, Seattle became the first major US city to ban single-use plastic straws and utensils in food service settings.  San Francisco quickly followed suit in August 2018, passing an ordinance that bans bars, restaurants, and retailers from selling and distributing single-use plastic and bio-plastic straws, stirrers, utensils, and other similar items.  The ordinance also bans the use of takeout containers treated with fluorinated chemicals and requires that all single-use foodware and accessories must be recyclable or compostable.  The list of US cities that have approved similar ordinances outlawing plastic straws and/or related single-use plastic items also includes the California cities of San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Oakland, Manhattan Beach, and Malibu; Miami Beach and Fort Myers Beach, among other coastal cities in Florida; and Monmouth Beach in New Jersey.  Furthermore, both New York City and Washington DC have proposed bills focused on reducing the use of plastic straws, while California and Hawaii are contemplating state-wide bans on plastic straws.

The anti-straw movement continued to gain traction throughout the country as numerous high-profile corporations joined the crusade by promising to phase out single-use plastic straws over the next several years.  Within the past few months, coffee retailer Starbucks declared its commitment to reducing environmental plastic pollution by eliminating single-use plastic straws from its stores worldwide by 2020, and fast-food giant McDonald's announced plans to test plastic straw alternatives at certain US locations this year.  Major hotel chains, including Marriott and Hyatt, have pledged to remove plastic straws, among other disposable plastic items, from their properties around the globe over the next year or so.  Additionally, Walt Disney and SeaWorld have vowed to eliminate plastic straws at the majority of their theme parks.  The list of corporate participants also includes major food service companies like Bon Appétit Management and Aramark, which have both expressed their commitment to significantly decrease the amount of single-use disposable plastics distributed across their operations; Royal Caribbean, which will stop providing plastic straws on its 50 cruise ships by the end of 2018; and American Airlines and Alaska Airlines, which both plan to replace single-use plastic straws and drink stirrers with more sustainable alternatives on flights and in their airports.


Drawing the Short Straw

The plastic straw bans have faced opposition from the disabled community, as well as from disability advocates.  In general, these groups feel the bans overlook the needs of individuals with disabilities that reduce mouth control or cause biting, in addition to those who require straws to drink because they are unable to lift a cup to their mouths.  In response to this pushback, many establishments will still have straws – typically biodegradable plastic or paper types – available upon request for those who need them.  However, it is important to note here that straws made from alternative materials may not always be an effective option for individuals with certain disabilities

In addition to the concerns expressed by the disabled community, Starbucks has experienced some backlash regarding the potential environmental impact of its plastic straw ban and subsequent introduction of a sippy cup-like lid as an alternative.  The new strawless lid reportedly uses more plastic than the company’s standard lid/straw option; and is made of polypropylene, a material the US can no longer export to China for recycling.


The Last Straw

Will banning single-use plastic straws help clean up the ocean or solve all of our plastic pollution woes?  No, not necessarily – plastic straws only account for around 0.03% of total plastic waste by mass.  Does this mean the bans should be abandoned?  No, not necessarily – plastic straws may just be the tip of the trash iceberg, but the anti-straw movement and its associated public awareness campaigns may result in a positive spillover effect that guides overall corporate and consumer behavior toward more sustainable consumption.  The plastic straw bans may also lay the groundwork for larger commitments to reduce global plastic pollution and for the adoption of improved plastic recycling practices around the world.  Sit back and drink that in for a moment – minus the plastic straw.