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.
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.