When Seattle outlawed single-use plastic straws in September 2017, the decision drew snickers from spectators as the latest, silliest example of nanny state excess—and one that could happen only in the famously progressive city. But by the time the ban went into effect in July 2018, straw bans had taken the world by storm.
Vancouver, British Columbia, banned straws in May. Active efforts are underway to do the same in San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; Washington, D.C.; and New York City. California is mulling a bill that would prohibit restaurateurs from offering their patrons unsolicited plastic straws, and Hawaii considered a bill this year that would have outlawed both businesses and individuals from selling or even giving out straws free of charge.
In April, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced plans to ban the little suckers kingdomwide. The European Union followed her lead a month later.
And it's not just governments: McDonald's and Starbucks are phasing out the use of straws, while A-list celebs like musicians Calvin Harris and Demi Lovato have publicly sworn them off.
Why this particular item, and why now? Eight million metric tons of plastic makes its way into the ocean every year, straw haters say. They don't mention that the United States is responsible for only about 1 percent of this waste, and that straws are a far tinier fraction still. Perhaps you've heard the old saw that Americans use 500 million straws a day. But way back in January, Reason broke the story that the source of this tidbit was a 2011 phone survey of three straw manufacturers, conducted by a 9-year-old.
The justification for the bans is almost beside the point, though, as evidenced by the latest argument: Straws are a "gateway plastic," according to the environmentalist group Lonely Whale, and prohibiting their distribution will cause people to reconsider whether they need the other plastic items in their lives.
Trying to keep track of the shifting goal posts is almost enough to distract you from the damage caused by these bans. Seattle business owners report massive cost increases from switching to less durable compostable straws. Some people with disabilities, who lack the ability to bring cup to lip, warn that without straws, they'll be unable to enjoy drinks out on the town with their able-bodied peers. Then there are all the priceless luxuries plastic straw bans will require us to forego, from saving our teeth a little wear and tear to sucking down a cold milkshake on a hot summer's day.
For most people, these aren't life-altering benefits. But absent a very good reason for taking our straws away, policy makers should let people suck in peace.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Straw Ban Straw Man".
Rent Free is a weekly newsletter from Christian Britschgi on urbanism and the fight for less regulation, more housing, more property rights, and more freedom in America's cities.