OPINION: The false dichotomy of paper vs. plastic straws really sucks

A Bon Appetit branded sign on a table in McConnell Dining Hall. The sign reads "We're breaking up with straws. By September 2019, we will eliminate all plastic straws from our 1,000 cafes in 33 states. We're the first in food service to make this commitment companywide. As industry leaders, it's a step we can take toward safeguarding the Earth from single-use plastics, and yet another way we can deliver 'food servie for a sustainable future.' Join us in going strawless today. It's a very short distance from mouth to cup. To learn more, visit cafebonappetit.com/straws."
The debate over plastic vs paper straws is misguided, Ben Reicher PO ’22 argues. (Luke Meares • The Student Life)

I, for one, have had it with the entire debate about paper versus plastic straws. Yes, I’m an environmentalist, but … straws? Amid the plethora of environmental threats facing our planet, it’s hard to believe straws will be the, well, straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back.

What makes it especially obnoxious is that this seemingly insignificant debate can take on almost sectarian proportions, as if one’s opinion reveals fundamental things about one’s character, like the two countries in “Gulliver’s Travels” that go to war over which side of the egg to break.

But, as the 5Cs shift ever more firmly to the paper camp, it appears everyone must pick a side, so I’ll come out and say it: I’m an atheist. The most environmentally-friendly option, as I see it, is not a paper or plastic straw, but rather no straw at all.

Paper products may actually be just as environmentally harmful as plastic or only marginally better. The “Use Less Stuff” study of paper and plastic bags found that manufacturing paper is responsible for 60 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than manufacturing the same amount of plastic, not to mention the fact that it requires cutting down trees that are no longer there to absorb carbon dioxide. Plastic pollution may be bad for the ocean, but then, so is global warming.

Making paper products also requires twice as much water as making their plastic equivalents, and using paper bags generates five times the amount of waste as plastic bags, according to the “Use Less Stuff” report.

At the end of the day, paper straws are still a single-use item. They may be biodegradable, but typically aren’t disposed of in the environment to biodegrade, instead winding up in landfills specifically meant to inhibit decomposition.

You usually can’t recycle paper straws either, because recycling facilities won’t accept items contaminated with food. (And some paper straws aren’t recyclable at all, as McDonald’s found after eliminating plastic straws at its UK locations). 

You can compost paper straws — but, let’s be honest, how often does that happen?

The best thing to do is to avoid using straws as much as possible. Unless you really need a straw (for example, if you have a disability), don’t take straws at restaurants, or tell the waiter you don’t need one. I myself haven’t used a straw since I was in high school and, trust me, the world didn’t end.

But, how much should we care about this, anyway? The contribution of plastic straws to worldwide plastic pollution is tiny — National Geographic reports straws account for less than 0.03 percent of the 8 million metric tons of plastic that enters the oceans annually. While the data doesn’t seem to be there, the contribution of straws to worldwide greenhouse gas emissions is no doubt equally miniscule. So, even if everyone forgoes straws, how much impact can that really have?

It may be true — even if this thinking is cliché — that every little bit helps. But the main value of avoiding straws is not the environmental benefits of that act in and of itself. Avoiding straws has value as a largely cost-free action that almost anyone can take; it’s an action that can encourage you to think about other ways you as an individual can help the environment and can make you feel comfortable taking a future action that is potentially more disruptive. 

This change of mindset might lead you to start recycling or composting, hold on to clothes for a bit longer before buying new ones, eat less beef or take public transport more. Perhaps you might participate in community efforts like beach cleanups, vote for environmentalist candidates or petition your representatives.

Avoiding straws also has value as a way of demonstrating your commitment to others, which might lead them to start thinking about what they can do as well. If enough of a population adopts certain behaviors, it really can make these behaviors widely accepted. That tipping point, as a paper in the journal Physical Review E suggests, may be as low as 10 percent.

At least, that’s how it should work. What shouldn’t happen is that you take the small step of avoiding straws and decide that’s all you need to do or even take it as license to do more of other environmentally harmful activities.

Forgoing straws has a largely negligible effect on the environment by itself. But individual actions can prompt lasting change in societal attitudes, spreading from person to person — that is how the will to enact policies of necessary scale develops.

Ben Reicher PO ’22 is from Agoura Hills, California. He joined his high school newspaper in ninth grade because he loved to argue, and hasn’t stopped since.

This story was last updated Oct. 18, 2019 at 12:48 a.m.

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