Straws are becoming controversial. Long overlooked as a waste source, perhaps because of the way they defy categorization, single-use straws are now drawing the ire of the environmental community, and policymakers are starting to take note.
California Assemblyman Ian Calderon, a Democrat, said on Tuesday that he plans to introduce legislation this week that would prohibit sit-down restaurants in California from providing straws to customers unless they are specifically requested. The measure would exclude fast food restaurants. He offered some explanation on Twitter as to why he’s proposing the law, calling it a “measured approach” that will help change behavior.
The proposal falls short of an outright ban, and the California Restaurant Association found the bill potentially palatable. Sharokina Shams, vice president for the group, told The Los Angeles Times that “hopefully, the bill language will support the idea of protecting the environment while also allowing consumers and businesses some cost-effective options.”
The sheer number of straws used and disposed of should give us pause. Every day, Americans throw away some 500 million plastic straws, enough to circle the Earth twice. That’s more than 1.5 straws a day per person, which means someone is using like five straws a day because I use very few straws. Worldwide, plastic straws add up to over 13 million tons of waste every year. In an age when McDonald’s is getting rid of all foam packaging and the E.U. wants all single-use plastics to be reusable or recyclable in the near future, this is just too many damn straws.
It’s not surprising that California is taking the lead on straw pollution, as the state is often an environmental trailblazer. A recent statewide ban on single-use plastic bags has proven surprisingly popular and effective. The issue of straw pollution has also gained a lot of traction in the celebrity community: Adrian Grenier, star of HBO’s Entourage, has embraced it wholeheartedly. Currently leading a campaign called Strawless Ocean, Grenier recently told CNN that when he’s in L.A. or New York he receives up to 10 straws a day in his “iced coffee, smoothies, soda, and cocktails.”
“A straw may be small, but it’s the DNA of carelessness and it just might be a gateway into solving the much larger issue of plastic pollution,” he said. “They connect all of us, no matter where we live or how much money we make, and they’re an opportunity to start a conversation.”
Plastic straws, like plastic bags, are hard to recycle, and often end up in landfills in the best case, and otherwise simply as litter. They gather in rivers and lakes and eventually in the ocean, adding to the massive trash clusterfuck currently smothering large areas of the sea. While these trash gyres may not look as harmful as oil slicks, the products making them up—often from refined petrochemicals—are often just as harmful to marine life and ecosystems in the long-run.
California’s northern neighbor, Washington state, is setting an early example of how straw pollution can be tackled effectively. In July, Seattle will become the largest city to ban single-use straws, thanks in large part to the Strawless in Seattle campaign by the Lonely Whale Foundation, which was co-founded by Grenier. The ban will also include plastic cutlery.
While promoting the ban, the Lonely Whale Foundation also works with local businesses and groups to encourage people to voluntarily switch to reusable straws made from materials like glass, steel, and bamboo. They’ve coined it the #stopsucking campaign. A risky hashtag if you ask me.
As momentum builds on the West Coast towards straw elimination, the same is happening across the Atlantic. UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove recently penned an op-ed in the Evening Standard saying “pubs, clubs and restaurants must bin the straw”:
As a symbol of society’s damaging addiction to single-use plastics and our throwaway culture, straws are hard to beat. If they did not exist, there would be scant reason to invent them. The Government is committed to cutting their use along with single-use plastic bottles, cutlery, bags, drinks stirrers and takeaway containers whose polluting presence long outlives their fleeting usefulness to humankind.
So next time you want a straw, just consider how nice it would be if they had never been invented.