My school has fully jumped on board with the “no straws” campaign. It was heading in this direction last year when signs went up in the café pointing out that straws contribute to the increase of plastic in the oceans. This year, the café no longer gives out straws or lids, except upon request.
Okay. I’m all for reducing plastic. I recycle everything that can be recycled, even though I live in a country that doesn’t really recycle. I take reusable bags to the grocery store and plan out purses and backpacks based on what I think I’ll buy and the best way to carry it. I’ve stopped buying paper towels for my kitchen and have always brought real cutlery in my lunchbox. So yes, let’s reduce waste and plastic. No argument there.
But . . . plastic straws are not the problem. Plastic straws are not the enemy. Banning plastic straws will not save the oceans, despite the current popularity of the sentiment. But banning plastic straws can raise awareness about the human impact on the environment. And if we keep the focus on “awareness” instead of demonizing the straw, maybe we’ll make some progress.
Straws are ubiquitous in our world. They are everywhere. We enjoy drinking from them and have gotten used to having them. To be honest, I didn’t think twice about straws until they became Public Enemy No. 1. People expect straws with their restaurant beverages because that’s what we’re used to. That’s part of what makes eating in a restaurant different from eating at home, even if we’re just drinking the same glass of water. Banning straws helps us recognize that we don’t actually need them. Sure, they’re fun and all, but necessary? Not for most of us. (More on this below.)
Hopefully, as we get used to being asked whether we need a straw or become accustomed to being discouraged from using them, we’ll realize that there are many other products we don’t need and can live without. For example, I have friends whose only paper products are in their bathroom. They don’t have paper towels and they don’t have napkins. They have tissues for guests but carry handkerchiefs themselves. They shop at markets to avoid plastic packaging and avoid takeaway for the same reason. I thought about these friends when I initially ran out of paper towels and, because their example served as a reminder, I haven’t bought any since. Napkins will be the next thing to go.
Realizing which products are unnecessary in our lives and making changes as a result is great. Maybe banning straws will raise awareness of how we can reduce unnecessaries in other areas of our lives, but banning straws can also be detrimental in unintended ways.
Because Sometimes, Straws Are a Tool
My sister and I discuss a lot of things that we both agree we can’t talk about with most other people. This summer, one of those things was our hesitation about jumping on board with the straw ban. My sister is a vegan and I’m a vegetarian and we both go out of our way to purchase environmentally friendly products, which we’re lucky to have the financial resources to do. But we both have educational background in and work experience with people with disabilities, and that means looking at conventionally popular campaigns like the straw ban through a different lens.
My sister is a speech pathologist and as soon as she mentioned it, it became obvious. Some people require plastic bendable straws to drink. Going out and being thirsty without advance planning or simply forgetting reusable alternatives at home should not preclude people with disabilities from being out in public and purchasing a beverage. It’s not hard to imagine that this could be a problem once you begin to think about it.
Based on that alone, I’m not in favor of an outright ban on plastic straws. Provide alternatives? Yes. Ban plastic bendable straws? No. The majority of us live in a world that we have designed to our needs and preferences, but those needs and preferences should not add yet another barrier to full participation in society for people with disabilities. We can rethink this and build inclusive communities. Do you need a straw? Maybe not. But might someone else. Absolutely.
So please, before you jump on board with any campaign, have a think. You can make personal choices without imposing them on people who might not have as much flexibility as you do.
And After All, Banning Straws Isn’t Enough
Another concern I have is that making a mission out of the plastic straw ban and vilifying those who use them might become a way for people who don’t otherwise pay attention to the environment feel like they’re making a difference. If “doing your part” means not using straws, that’s step one, but there’s a long way to go. And you and I and everyone else all bear responsibility for it.
Let’s consider pollution for a moment:
Air: According to the WHO, air pollution kills upwards of 7 million people each year. And 91% of the world’s population live in places where air quality exceeds the WHO’s limits. Industrialization and urbanization, which disproportionately impact people in developing countries, are largely to blame for this. The ways around this are expensive, yes, but it is certainly possible with today’s technology to sustainably build cities. And as the world’s population moves towards cities, we need them to be sustainable if they are to be liveable at all.
Land: Land pollution refers to activities that destroy or degrade the Earth’s surface and soil. This pollution can be more difficult to see or to recognize because the mere act of living in the world requires food and housing, generates waste, and otherwise has a direct or indirect impact on the planet. But awareness about the choices we make, which policies and programs we support, and where our food comes from can go a long way here.
Water: It’s old news that water pollution is increasing. We’ve been bombarded with a lot of pathetic pictures of ocean creatures and plastic, which was the impetus for the straw ban. Over half a billion people rely on polluted water for survival, which many of us don’t realize until we travel to places where you can’t drink the water. As with the above examples, water pollution is avoidable with conscious effort from companies and consumers to properly dispose of waste and reduce use of substances that can run off into water.
Straws? A gateway to solving some problems but not, in and of themselves, a panacea for saving the whales or the turtles. (It’s ironic that somehow we’ve forgotten the most vulnerable people.) And all those companies, restaurants, and cafés no longer purchasing and providing straws? I’d like to know what they are doing to support sustainability projects and programs. Because it’s about more than not using something. We instead have to do something.
I generally have a lot of optimism about humanity, and I also have a bit of a history of being disappointed. It’s easy to blame circumstances when plans don’t work out, but there are no circumstances here; there are merely people. So if we, the people, become conscious consumers of all things, from food and products to homes, transportation, and even the organizations that govern our work and leisure, we will all be better off.
For the reasons above, I don’t support an outright ban on straws. And if you’ve read this far, I suspect you don’t, either. But if taking something you’re used to out of your life helps you begin to recognize that you can make other choices, too, then the demonization of straws will have done its job. If you can say “no” to the use of a straw, how about yet another napkin with your takeaway? How about walking down the block instead of driving your car? Opting for a hearty salad without chicken? Opening doors and windows to cool your home? Spending an extra few dollars for eco-friendly cleaning products? Donating your clothes and old kitchen supplies? Taking your electronics to a recycling center?
Being a conscious consumer means being aware of what you’re buying and therefore what you support, instead of just doing the easiest, fastest, or cheapest thing. If the old aphorisms are true, that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” and “you get what you pay for”, it seems only logical that we must pay for a better world. Since this is the only world we have, and we’re paying much more dearly, in dollars and in lives, for a contaminated world, the solution seems obvious.
Make conscious choices. Think about what you need and what you don’t and remember that we’re all in this together. You matter in this change – you and your conscious choices.
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