At the Start of 2018, Straws Were Legal Almost Everywhere. Now, They're an Endangered Species Across the U.S.

What explains the rapid spread of the ultimate nanny state policy?



At the beginning of 2018, straws were legal and blessedly unregulated in almost all of the United States, save a few California beach towns. As we approach the end of 2018, however, you'd be hard pressed to find a major American city that has not passed or at least considered some sort of restriction on this now notorious plastic drinking utensil.

In January, the nation was scandalized when a California legislator proposed $1,000 fines for restaurants who offered unsolicited plastic straws. When Santa Barbara tossed around the idea of potential criminal penalties for straw providers in July, Fox News ran with the story for a week. Yet when the 27-nation European Union advanced a straw ban this week, no one batted an eye. In only 12 months, we've been desensitized to straw bans.

So far, almost every major city along the west coast has banned or restricted straws, including Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Straws have fared a little better on the other side of the country, with Washington, D.C., being the only major city to ban the plastic suckers. But bills that ban plastic straws—and a lot of other things with them—have been introduced in New York City, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Add to this the numerous corporate crackdowns on plastic straws, which have seen companies from Starbucks and Legoland, to McDonalds and Marriot, declare they'll either stop using plastic straws or limit their distribution to only those customers who specifically request them.

How did all this come to pass? Why have once beloved plastic straws become verboten in polite society? I think a couple factors are at play.

The first is that while straw bans themselves are new, the kind of anti-consumerist fervor that pops up from time to time about different single-use items is not. In the late 1980s, there was a brief moral panic about the impact of balloons on the environment. This was followed by concerns about Styrofoam, and it reached a 21st century peak with plastic bag bans. These past efforts to crack down on disposables paved the way for straw bans in a very direct way.

Seattle's straw ban—which went into effect in July of this year—was actually passed as part of a wider city council-led crackdown on non-recyclable food containers way back in 2008.

That bill gave the CEO of Seattle Public Utilities—which runs waste collection in the city—the authority to issue temporary waivers on enforcement of this ban for particular items, something they did for straws for nearly a decade. That leniancy only came to an end in September 2017.

It's the exact same story for D.C.'s plastic straw ban, which was passed as part of a larger sustainability bill in 2014. It wasn't until October of this year that the city decided it should probably start enforcing its straw prohibition.

Indeed, all the major initial adopters of straw bans so far—including Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and D.C.—had plastic bag restrictions on the books prior to their straw crackdown. These cities were thus primed for taking on another disposable, plastic symbol of our lamentable consumer culture. All they needed was the right message.

Enter Milo Cress, the elementary school student, who at age nine took it upon himself to end straw usage in his small Vermont town. Starting in 2010, Cress started asking businesses to voluntarily stop serving straws as part of his Be Straw Free campaign. At the time, Cress also conducted a phone survey of three straw manufacturers to gauge the size of the straw market, determining after averaging their responses that it added up to 500 million straws a day.

As Reason has charted, Cress's campaign and its 500-million-straws-a-day stat was picked up by Eco-Cycle, a recycling company in Boulder, Colorado. Cress' and Eco-Cycle's work was then featured in a National Park Service blog post in 2013, and has been repeated in NPS literature and in press reports from major media outlets ever since. A jarring 2015 video showing a sea turtle with a plastic straw up its nose added fuel to the fire. The video is actually pretty shocking, and helped to galvanize public opinion against plastic straws.

Both the imagery of the suffering animal and the shocking—albeit, inaccurate—claim that Americans consume 500 million straws a day were seized on by the activist group Lonely Whale. In 2017 the group launched a viral #stopsucking campaign on social media, replete with celebrity studded videos urging viewers to give up on straws.

Lonely Whale also took their case directly to policy makers, launching a Strawless in Seattle pressure campaign in September 2017 that, by all accounts, led directly to the Rainy City being the first major municipality to take the plunge and ban straws outright.

Aiding the spread of straw bans was the response from the industries most effected, which ranged from either ambivalent to openly supportive. Many restaurants and bars saw an opportunity to both tout their environmental credentials and do a little corporate cost cutting. Larger retailers like Starbucks leapt on anti-straw mania to advertise new strawless sippy lids—later revealed to use more plastic than the old lid/straw combo.

Even the plastics industry was relatively sedate, offering some criticism in the press, but not taking any major political action to stop straw bans. Compare that to the industry's response to plastic bag bans and taxes, which saw the plastics lobby launch multiple ballot initiatives to try and overturn such policies. The industry also worked with conservative state legislatures and attorneys general to preempt local bag bans in places like Austin and Minneapolis.

Many consumers have also gone along with straw bans, seeing it as an easy way of being environmentally friendly without doing a whole lot of work. Because let's face it, unless you are a Boba tea shop owner or disabled person, straws just aren't that essential to your day-to-day life. Giving them up is a minor sacrifice for a major cause.

While plastic straws are unessential for most people, most of the time, attempts to ban them under penalty of fines or incarceration is like holding up a liquor store for a bag of chips. The truth about straws is that they aren't really an environmental problem. According to one estimate, straws make up at most about .02 percent of the plastic that gets into the ocean each year. Beach clean-ups consistently report plastic straws are between 2 and 4 percent of litter collected by item type, and likely even less by weight. Experts rank plastic straws as less hazardous to animals than balloons and fishing nets.

What's more, of all the plastic getting into the world's oceans, only a very small percentage—something like 1 percent—is coming from the United States.

The vast majority of marine plastic waste is sourced from places like China, Indonesia, and Vietnam, where a mix of growing plastic consumption and lagging waste management systems mean that a lot of what is used goes uncollected, and thus leaks into streams, rivers, and oceans.

Our straws do wind up on beaches, in waterways, and even in bellies of sea creatures. That's a real problem. But it's not one that merits the heavy hand of government. Straw bans impose unseen costs and have made many cities in the U.S. marginally less free. They have done even less to protect the environment.

NEXT: The Government Is Definitely Going to Shut Down Tonight. Maybe.

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  1. Because people find meaning in bullying others to do what they want. Instead of convincing people to stop using straws and using reason, like a rational person should, they go run to government to force their will on others. It was the same way with plastic bag bans.

    Their position is so great that they need force to implement it.

    1. Instead of convincing people to stop using strawslittering


      1. How would this stop a jackass from littering?

        And where does most of the ‘plastic in the ocean’ come from? my guess is it isn’t the US

        1. As I recall, 60% comes from China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. I’d bet the rest of 3rd world Asia, South and Central America, and Africa are down for a good bit of the remainder.

        2. Read the penultimate paragraph in the article

    2. All that really needs to happen to solve the problem, such as it is, is to get people not to litter. Put plastic in a landfill or recycle it and it’s fine. People seem to think that every straw is going to end up in the ocean or something.

      1. Yes, very good. Walk down the streets of any major city, see the trash cans surrounded by piles of trash that people are generally too lazy to toss in the trash cans. I know, hire the illegal immigrants to be litter cops!

  2. What happened? You see, liberal, progressives, and other varieties of leftists aren’t about what’s right and wrong, philosophies of ideas, or any sort of ideology. They just want to be part of the correct flock. So when they sense that the flock has shifted, they shift as well.

    So when some grade school kid makes up a number about straws killing turtles, the entire left side of the spectrum mistook that as the flock shifting. So they all shifted in unison. Perfectly timed and coordinated shifting. Because they’ve always been against plastic straws and you’re an evil Trumpista if you don’t want to ban plastic straws.

    We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.

  3. Our straws do wind up on beaches, in waterways, and even in bellies of sea creatures. That’s a real problem.

    A littering problem. Why don’t we make that illegal?

    Oh wait, it already is. When straws are outlawed only outlaws will have straws.

  4. America! You are so full of stupid!

  5. Reason should do a bit called “The Last Straw.”

  6. What explains the rapid spread of the ultimate nanny state policy?

    A combination of false information, mass hysteria, and wanting to be part of the group.

    1. This is literally it. I witnessed it first hand the other day. I was having lunch with some former coworkers, and they couldn’t help themselves not to bring up politics. It sounded like they just got back from another planet. Trump is going to be impeached, Europeans are so much more enlightened than us deplorable Americans, racism is rampant due to Trump’s “normalization”, whypipo did all sort of terrible things in the past and somehow that’s still relevant, and of course, Russian meddling. Non-stop self-righteous proselytizing with an unbelievable level of certainty but lacking perspective and factual accuracy. I think we’re in the midst of a moral panic among the cultist left. It’s obvious to me when someone has confined himself to an information bubble. The holes in their knowledge of the political landscape are big enough to drive a truck through, and getting bigger over time. They think everyone loves Angela Merkel and that the current generation of youths takes progressive ideals seriously (they don’t; woke mockery is the new counterculture because youths will always be drawn to taboos). When will they wake up? When reality knocks them on their asses yet again?

      1. When reality knocks them on their asses yet again?

        Why would this time do the trick?

  7. Totally O/T: MSNBC Host and “musician” Joe Scarborough releases New EP

    Folks, I think it’s time to take another look at this whole 1st Amendment thing…

    1. That’s some awful writing. The Federalist must pay by the word.

      I don’t care about Joe or his hobby.

  8. How about banning credit cards?

    Unlike straws, they’re not recycled.

    1. Or ban yogurt. Or Lunchables. Or tofu.

      All sold in individual plastic shells.

    2. Straws are not recycled. I supposed they are made from recycled content, but I doubt it.

  9. I know more about refuse and littering than I’d like to (don’t ask). I can say that straws are not a significant problem. Far bigger problems are plastic bags, plastic cup lids, plastic bottles, candy wrappers, and styrofoam of all types. If I could ban one thing it would be little ketchup and salsa packets. They give out too many of them anyway.

  10. Environmentalism is a religion full of zealots and plastic is considered sinful.

    Enviros are the same as any other religious extremists.

  11. I was given a straw with my iced-tea at lunch today at an Italian restaurant in Quinton VA –
    I was disappointed that the wrapper WAS NOT imprinted with “Give me liberty or give me death!”

  12. When you can’t bust someone for something substantial, you nickel and dime them to death. Which reminds me of two great stories. A Marine friend had been certified as a plane refueler and had a background check by the Nixon White House to refuel Air Force One. His personnel file was stamped to prevent transfer without White House approval. His sergeant hated his guts, probably because he was something of a smart ass. Thus came about these two great stories.

    He was told to clean the office; and I am guessing here, but I can just see this joker using a big wide push broom to sweep under the desks and chairs, making a hellacious racket and nuisance of himself, instead of just using a foxtail and dustpan. His sergeant wrote him up for pulling a push broom. The commanding officer was not too pleased at such nonsense.

    His commanding officer was told to round up three Marines to send to Vietnam. He delegated that task to the sergeant, who listed my friend in violation of the White House approval requirement. The commanding officer crossed out his name and sent the sergeant.

    1. Show me the man, I’ll show you the crime.

  13. Well at least now the rise of the oceans has begun to slow

  14. In Georgia, I grab handfulls of plastic straws and throw them in the ocean. At this rate, European estuaries will look like Philipino rivers where they meet the ocean. Plastic plastic, everywhere plastic.

    So much plastic, I can walk from the USA and illegally enter Europe.

  15. Paper straws will take over the world. Of course this means deforestation. Those too will be banned.

    1. Really its just a conspiracy from the logging lobbies in the northwest and northeast to push more paper

  16. Political correctness is fascism disguised as good manners.

    1. That’s the counterpoint to “the nazi facists hide behind civility” garbage that is the evasive nonsense response to rational arguments.

  17. Politicians ban plastic straws because they are too incompetent to do anything else. Virtue signalling makes it seem like they are doing something to save us from imaginary problems. Virtue signalling legislation is easy. All else is beyond their reach. Besides Virtue signalling provides the power to control. Control is the life blood of politicians.

  18. Who’s going to take the blame when an epidemic of disease spreads because of the lack of straws? Don’t they know that cups are almost always handled by the rims?

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