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Media, Legislators, Activists Stick By Straw Stats Produced By 9-Year-Old

An elementary school student said Americans use 500 million straws a day. Adults studying the issue put the figure far lower.

Hellen Sergeyeva/Dreamstime.comHellen Sergeyeva/Dreamstime.comDubious statistics can keep thriving in our policy debates long after they've been debunked. Take the oft-cited fact that Americans use 500 million straws a day.

The source for this number is an unconfirmed 2011 phone survey of three straw manufacturers conducted by 9-year-old Milo Cress. That's a pretty shaky foundation for an argument, but that hasn't stopped media outlets, activist organizations, and government officials from using the figure to justify restrictions on the use of plastic straws.

Many outlets were either oblivious to the figure's origins or mistakenly attributed it to the National Park Service. Learning its true source did spark some self-reflection from the Washington Post, which had cited the 500 million number in some of its reporting, and which ran a story that was somewhat skeptical of Cress's findings.

Sadly, that introspection was short-lived. This past Friday, the Post was back to uncritically citing Cress's research, saying in a story that "by some estimates, Americans throw away 500 million plastic straws a day."

Others are sticking by the figure too. When the Post ran its skeptical story, a spokesperson for California Assemblyman Ian Calderon (D–Los Angeles), who had sponsored a bill criminalizing the offer of unsolicited straws, told the paper "we have no reason to believe it's not accurate." Calderon's office could cite no other national statistic about straw use in the United States, but because no one had definitively debunked Cress's number, they were going to stick with it.

A similar line of reasoning has been advanced by the fact-checking website Snopes, which says: "No one has proven that [500 million straws a day] figure wrong, mind you; it's just that Cress is its only source and no one has confirmed his research independently."

But more credible estimates of American straw usage do in fact exist.

The marketing analysis firm Technomics specializes in researching the food service industry. Every two years, it performs a study of disposable food service packaging; its most recent effort, from 2016, looked at over 30 different categories of packaging. Those numbers do not include straws purchased for home consumption, but David Henkes, a senior principal at the firm, says the study captures about 95 percent of the straw market.

Technomics found that Americans use 172 million straws each day. Given a growth rate of 2–3 percent per year in the straw market, Henkes estimates the figure today is somewhere around 175 million.

Cress reached his 500 million figure from calling three straw manufacturers, asking for their estimates of the straw market, and then averaging the answers he got. Given the fragmented nature of the food service business, Henkes says that approach is bound to give you a bad figure.

"You tend to get the bias of those three companies. Some of them may have big accounts like McDonald's or Starbucks or something," Henkes tells Reason. "What those miss is the parts of the business that aren't using as many straws. What you're essentially doing is extrapolating your small part of what you know about the business to the larger food service industry."

For this reason, Technomics adopts a "triangular" approach, surveying over 1,000 restaurant operators, looking at data from distributors such as Gordon Food Service and US Foods, and examining numbers from packaging companies (several of whom are Techonomics clients).

It seems fair to say that Technomics' survey is more rigorous than Cress's.

Getting this number right, is not a mere academic quibble. If we're going to consider legal sanctions for the use of a product, you need good data on how much the product is used.

"I think restaurants are an easy target to these bans and taxes and things like that," Henkes says. "I think it's important to have the right number out there for policy debates."

Photo Credit: Hellen Sergeyeva/Dreamstime.com

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  • Mickey Rat||

    The statistic is too useful for us to not to believe it is true.

  • The Last American Hero||

    +1 Michael Mann

  • sarcasmic||

    Don't fuck with the narrative!

  • loveconstitution1789||

    This straw ban is happening whether you like it or not!

  • Cy||

    I can't wait for the first "Strawban no-knock midnight SWAT Raid fatality!" It'll be so nice to hear a big burly guy was glad he got to go home safe after capping some dudes grandma!

  • BambiB||

    The kid says 500 million. The industry source says 172 million (for 95% of the market). The kid is within an order of magnitude - which is pretty damned good for a 9-year-old and certainly much closer to the industry source estimate than I would have been if I'd guessed.

    I almost never use a straw. The idea that nearly half of all Americans use at least one straw per day still seems incredible. But if it's true, maybe the anti-straw folks have a point. Not saying staws need to be banned, but maybe there's a marketing opportunity here for a biodegradable straw.

  • Spanky202684||

    In my regular routine, I might use one or two straws a month. I'm sure my adult son would be the same. My college student daughter would probably take up our slack in the daily straw usage.

    I'd be willing to bet that college students eating in campus facilities would use plenty of straws.

    Certain types of service positions are more prone to pile up straw after straw in fast food/convenience store soft drink cups - hair salons would be one.

  • brec||

    Straw Stats Produced By 9-Year-Old

    It is long past time for Reason to abandon its relentless childism and its servile kowtowing to the adult power structure.

  • ||

    It is long past time for Reason to abandon its relentless childism and its servile kowtowing to the adult power structure.

    I suspect that Brec is being sarcastic, but I say it quite sincerely. If Milo Cress's race and sex are incidental to the inaccuracy of his research on plastic straw consumption, shouldn't his age be also?

  • Get To Da Chippah||

    Not when said age is below the age of majority. Would you implicitly trust a 9 year-old's cancer research enough to follow whatever treatment method the research suggested?

  • Spanky202684||

    He merely has to say he identified as a 29 year old when he conducted the research & voila, he's an adult.

  • Alcibiades||

    I hope Ron is gonna review this latest Malthusian iteration in Nature Sustainability:

    A Good Life for all Within Planetary Boundaries by O'Neil et al.

    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-018-0021-4

    The complete text is available for free but that link wouldn't work here.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

  • Alcibiades||

    The NR link to the complete text works:

    http://www.nationalreview.com/.....stribution

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Whoops, didn't see that you had followed up. Sorry about that.

  • Alcibiades||

    NP
    Hoping Ron will cover this ahem, academic justification for rampant authoritarianism and wealth redistribution.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    It's all done by 9 year olds these days.

    There seems to be a lot of 9 year olds working in government and the media.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    9 year olds can provide the necessary Nanny-State justification but cannot walk home or be in a park alone.

  • The Last American Hero||

    It does explain the popularity of Bernie Sanders and his policies.

  • ||

    There seems to be a lot of 9 year olds working in government and the media.

    Well that data isn't going to mine itself!

  • colorblindkid||

    172 million straws each day.

    I still find it hard to believe half of America uses a straw everyday.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    I use 172 million straws each day.

    They can put that stat in their cup and drink it.

  • chemjeff||

    I use 172 million straws each day.

    You're supposed to make your anti-mind-reading hat out of tinfoil, not straws.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    No wonder it does not work very well.

    I shall make the necessary adjustments.

  • Liberty Lover||

    Probably not, but hey, some people probably use multiple straws a day.

  • brokencycle||

    172M seems high at first, but think about it this way. How many people go to Starbucks multiple times a day? How many people eat out at a fast food restaurant multiple times a day?

    I'm willing to bet if you created a histogram of people by straw use you would have a large clustering of people using multiple straws a day.

  • Leader Desslok||

    How much you want to bet that they group that uses the most straws, such as those that go to Starbucks everyday, are the same ones that would support the anti-straw fine that CA is proposing? Bets? Anyone?

  • My Dog Bites Better Than Yours||

    C'mon LD, you know as well as I that "Restaurants with >15,000 stores worldwide featuring primarily coffee-based beverages" will be exempt.

    That that short straw in your scotch? Forget it. And you better not get caught bringing your own.

  • The Last American Hero||

    See "Seattle Sugary Drinks tax", which conveniently exempts mochas with 3x the calories of a a can of Coca Cola.

  • Leader Desslok||

    The crony capitalism loophole. Man I can't believe I forgot about that.

  • Will Nonya||

    how many people leave starbucks with straws? Surely they still sell coffee. or what they passed off as a coffee-like hot beverage at least.

  • IMissLiberty||

    Straws prevent contagion from the germs on the rims of the cups. The rims are the most handled part. If the stack of cups falls over, what part touches the floor? How is a stack picked up? Straws save lives!

  • chemjeff||

    Actually, it is somewhat consistent with current trends.

    http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics.....-home.aspx

    In 1970, 25.9 percent of all food spending was on food away from home; by 2012, that share rose to its highest level of 43.1 percent.

    So, roughly, that would correspond on average to one meal each day dining out, and most of those probably have a straw associated with it.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Though that's probably a little weighted, as that says "food spending" and eating out probably costs at least two or three times as much as eating at home for any given meal.

  • Cy||

    If you take into account the little stir straws used at corporate coffee kiosks... I could see that.

  • Kevin47||

    I would actually guess those account for the majority of straw use. But how do you legislate against that? Easier for the enviro-crazies to pick on wait staff.

  • Cy||

    You don't... it's supposed to be a free capitalist country.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    100% of statists gotta state.

  • Zeb||

    a spokesperson for California Assemblyman Ian Calderon (D–Los Angeles), who had sponsored a bill criminalizing the offer of unsolicited straws, told the paper "we have no reason to believe it's not accurate."

    I have no reason to believe that the statement that Calderon and his spokespeople are sheep fuckers is not accurate either.

  • Rhywun||

    This idiotic focus on straws is the same nonsene you see when the government "shuts down" and they close national parks and libraries - the control freaks always want maximum attention.

    Amazon probably burns through a hundred times as much plastic every day as us using straws.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    The source for this number is an unconfirmed 2011 phone survey of three straw manufacturers conducted by 9-year-old Milo Cress.

    Doesn't matter where the number comes from so long as it confirms ones preconceived biases. Sheesh, don't you know how to prog?

  • Paloma||

    Well he's gotta be 16 by now!

  • chemjeff||

    Actually, this whole episode suggests an idea.

    Someone from Reason should put out a statistic that is blatantly false - something like "the NSA spies on 1 trillion phone calls every day! Wake up, people!"

    And then the fact checkers will get to work and reveal "no, silly, the NSA only spies on 100 billion phone calls per day! That's literally 10 times less than what you wrote!"

    And then someone will realize "holy cow, the NSA really does spy on 100 billion phone calls per day?"

  • Kevin47||

    Except, as it pertains to straws, there is a certain significance to the idea the average American uses more than one straw per day, on average. It implies we are just chucking them and grabbing a new one for no reason, as opposed to simply having one to accompany our beverage when dining out, which only fruitcakes think should be a cause for regulation.

  • ||

    Actually, this whole episode suggests an idea.

    Just put it in a memo to Devin Nunes, I hear he's the go to guy on these sorts of things. Maybe cc Snowden on it.

  • IceTrey||

    According to the kid every single person uses 1.5 straws every day.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Who can blame a 9-year-old for not really understanding what a straw poll actually is?

  • Paloma||

    I'd guess that restaurants buy that many straws and throw away quite a few that aren't used, like napkins and little packets of sugar.

  • ||

    One of the keys that's missing from the original article was that along CA coastal cleanup, only some 800,000 straws had been collected over the course of 30 yrs. Meaning (assuming Japanese hypodermic needles straws aren't washing up on the CA coastline) something along the lines of 1 in every 3,000 straws was lost to the coastline (to be picked up and counted later) and that, again assuming 1.5 per person per day, the average person 'loses' ~14 straws in a lifetime of daily straw consumption.

    If all the straws get used and recycled, the number, no matter how large, is irrelevant outside trivia like the miles of dental floss manufactured every day or how high the stack of the world's money would be if you stacked it all up.

  • JP88||

    A similar line of reasoning has been advanced by the fact-checking website Snopes, which says: "No one has proven that [500 million straws a day] figure wrong, mind you; it's just that Cress is its only source and no one has confirmed his research independently."

    Snopes confirms they are an extension of Big Brother.

  • JWatts||

    Snopes was a great source 10 years ago. Now it's pretty awful.

  • Leader Desslok||

    Pretty much this. A kid does some research, which may or may not be accurate, and no one tries to verify either his results or methods. The journalist just take it at his word and repeat it, which then gets repeated by other journalist, and is taken as fact by the nannies, er I mean politicos.

    In many ways this is like the Trump FISA dust up. One guy reports something, it gets repeated, it then is accepted as factual multiple reports and is used to justify a course of action. This is known as circular reporting in the intelligence world.

  • ||

    In many ways this is like the Trump FISA dust up.

    Except backwards. Like if the kid had said we use 500 Million straws daily and everybody took 5 straws out of their mouth, tossed them in the garbage, took out another straw, scratched their head with it and threw it out the window, and then took out two more fresh straws to type "That's unbelievable!" hunt-and-peck style into their keyboard.

    We know our own domestic spy agencies are spying on us. We know the FBI did what they did at Ruby Ridge and at the Bundy Ranch. We know that they basically lifted the SPLC and ADL 'domestic terrorist list' as their own until it became 'too problematic' to infiltrate every rod and gun club in the country that just happened to be all white. Back when Trump had said his wires were tapped in NYC, I just assumed it was true not because he specifically knew the FBI was spying on him but because the odds are so good that somebody between the NYPD and the NSA is going to have his lines or lines of his associates tapped.

  • Hank Phillips||

    I blame the Harrison Act War on Plant Leaves provisions for the awful death of the wax-and-paper straw industry.

  • Jere Krischel||

    Just wait until they find out how much toilet paper we use a day, and demand that we limit ourselves to single squares per sitting :)

    175 million, 500 million, 20 billion - it doesn't matter how many plastic straws we use per day. The planet moves on and doesn't care.

  • Cy||

    Think of all of that toxic paper being dumped into our oceans every day!?!?!?

    Do you like oysters? Because this is how you get tasty oysters!

  • Sigivald||

    As "BS activist numbers" go, getting within a factor of three in your estimate is staggeringly close, and the kid got lucky and ballparked the number nicely.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    "Adults studying the issue put the figure far lower."
    There are no "adults" in CA.

  • ||

    In all seriousness, I resent the ageism of this headline. If Milo Cress's race and sex are incidental to the inaccuracy of his research on plastic straw consumption, shouldn't his age be also? Youth rights now!

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    The source for this number is an unconfirmed 2011 phone survey of three straw manufacturers conducted by 9-year-old Milo Cress. That's a pretty shaky foundation for an argument, but that hasn't stopped media outlets, activist organizations, and government officials from using the figure to justify restrictions on the use of plastic straws.

    They're just going easy on the kid cause he's a straw boy. When he becomes a straw man, he'll be attacked on all sides.

  • billdeserthills||

    Your title is misleading, it should read:
    Liberal media, legislators and activists

  • Garrett_Connelly||

    Straws are styrene. A photoactive chemical used to make styrofoam.

    Remember the oily film on coffee in styrofoam cups?

    Don't worry. Oil companies fixed it with additives to make the oil slick disappear. And then your town incinerates it all. Relax! The cancer epidemic and declining life expectancy are simply Russian propaganda to destabilize our way of life.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    You make a convincing argument for something.

  • Longtobefree||

    That number must include all of the straw men from all the news sites in the 'verse

  • IMissLiberty||

    Don't get side-tracked by the WRONG problem (though the integrity of such numbers is a chronic major problem).

    I ALWAYS use a straw! Preferably paper-wrapped when I get it!

    If you have ever sat in a restaurant and seen the employees (in health department-mandated gloves!) scratch their heads (and other places), wield a mop-handle, turn on the faucets, and re-stock the cups and glasses...you would too. The rims of glasses and paper cups and coffee cups are often the most-handled part of the cup. You may not want to put your lips to them.

    Of course, the best defense is a strong immune system, but you never know when the government will cause you stress and stress weakens it!

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