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Activists Say Straws Should Be Banned Because They Are a 'Gateway Plastic'

Advocates hope a straw ban will be the first step toward broader plastic prohibitions.

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Plastic straw bans won't help the environment, but that's no reason not to pass them.

Or so argue straw prohibitionists who want the little suckers outlawed in the hope of provoking environmentally friendly soul searching among inconvenienced consumers. "Straw bans aren't going to save the ocean, but they could jumpstart much-needed conversations about the level of non-biodegradable trash in them," writes Vox's Radhika Viswanathan, who gets all the facts about straws and their minimal effect on the environment right but still manages to come out in favor of a ban.

Viswanathan is joined by Dune Ives, executive director of the environmental group Lonely Whale, which has has targeted straws as a "gateway plastic." With "plastic water bottles too endemic, plastic bags already somewhat politicized, and no viable alternative for the plastic cup in ALL markets," Ives wrote in an October 2017 blog post, her organization had to find something to ban.

Straws, Ives says, made the perfect target: too inconsequential to really be missed but so ubiquitous that their absence would be noticed. "To us, it was the 'gateway plastic' to the larger, more serious plastic pollution conversation," says Ives, whose organization was instrumental in getting Seattle to ban straws with its "Strawless in Seattle" campaign.

Does it make sense to support ineffectual bans in the hope that they might, through the power of conversation, spark an attitudinal change? Petty restrictions on people's behavior usually makes them less sympathetic, not more, to the cause the rules are supposed to serve. And whatever benefits they might produce must be weighed against the very real costs they impose on those forced to comply with them.

Consider Caroline Lee, the owner of Young Tea, a bubble tea shop in downtown Seattle. She has been rushing to replace her stock of plastic straws with the now-mandated biodegradable type by July 1, when the city's ban goes into effect. "I would say that it's six to seven times more expensive than the regular plastic straw," Lee says.

These compostable straws are also less durable, which increases shipping and storage costs. "It cannot endure high heat," Lee says. "When we ship it over sea, we use an insulation blanket to cover the cartons. It's pretty expensive." She adds that the new straws last only 16 months before becoming stale and unusable.

These costs, says Lee, are forcing her to impose some new austerity measures on her customers. "Some of the customers would grab two straws," she says. "We have been generous about that. Now we just give one straw per drink, and we are thinking of raising up the price a little bit to compensate for the costs."

Lee says she shares the concerns animating the straw banners but is nevertheless conflicted about the policy. "As a business owner it is hard," she says. "It's more costs for us, but I too am concerned about so many plastics…so for me it's complicated." Lee suggests the city should compensate businesses affected by the straw ban by lowering their taxes.

No such plans are in the works. Instead the city will fine Lee $250 for any violations of the new straw policy.

The burdens placed on Lee and business owners like her seem to be pretty far from the minds of straw banners. Viswanathan's Vox article spends not a word on how bans affect businesses. Neither did Ives' Lonely Whale group when it was pimping paper straws during its "Strawless in Seattle" blitz last September.

Activists instead are choosing to focus on the magical, planet-saving conversations that will spring from diners, drinkers, and coffee sippers who are told they can't grab an extra straw on the go.