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Plastic Straw Bans: Will it Make a Difference?
California has recently become the first state to ban plastic straws in restaurants. Beginning in 2019, customers will have to ask for straws if they want them. They will no longer be offered without asking.Other places, such as Seattle, have also joined this movement. In July, Seattle became the first major US city to ban single-use plastic straws and utensils.Even some big corporations, like Starbucks, Aramark, and American Airlines, are making the move to ban plastic straws.
Plastic waste, including single-use plastics like straws and utensils, are a big problem. In 2015, worldwide plastic consumption totaled 300 million metric tons. When broken down, that is essentially 88 pounds of plastic a year per person globally. It is estimated that less than 9 percent of all of the plastic used daily is recycled. Most of it ends up in landfills or in the ocean. Even though many people think they are being environmentally friendly by recycling, the stats tell another story. Research shows that more than 79 percent of all plastic ends up in the landfill, even if it is thrown in a recycling bin first. Another 12 percent is incinerated, which is having a negative effect on the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, this problem will not be resolved simply by eliminating straws. However, environmentalists say that we have to start somewhere. Eliminating straws and other single-use plastic is a great first step in a much-needed, larger, global behavior change. According to Plastic Pollution Coalition CEO Dianna Cohen, “We look at straws as one of the gateway issues to help people start thinking about the global plastic pollution problem…They’ve been designed to be used for a very short amount of time, and then be tossed away.”
Some companies are taking this issue to heart, and moving beyond simply eliminating straws. Aramark, a global company that operates in schools, prisons, hospitals, and businesses in 19 countries around the world, recently vowed to reduce its straw use 60 percent by 2020. In addition, the company also plans to cut back on plastic cutlery, plastic bags, and “various packaging materials.” Across the pond, other proposals for banning plastics are being considered in the UK and Europe. If enacted, these proposals could eliminate nearly all single-use plastics in restaurants and businesses across the European continent, including straws, cutlery, cotton swabs, cups, and carry-out containers. According to Greenpeace UK’s political adviser Sam Chetan Welsh, “If we are to protect our oceans from the scourge of plastic, the flow of waste needs to be cut off at the tap…That means the companies producing and selling all this packaging must take responsibility for it and cut down the amount of plastic ending up in our shopping baskets.”
While removing single-use plastics may seem like a big move that might not be successful, traditionally such moves have been effective. For example, in the US in the 1960s, unregulated pollution caused a range of problems including offshore oil spills and asthma-inducing car exhaust. With the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, regulation had a positive impact on both the environment and the economy. While all environmental problems have not been eliminated, things have certainly improved and can continue to do so. In fact, the EPA currently promotes the simple “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra. Environmentalists like Cohen hope an extra “r” can be added to this mantra: “refuse.” Even if single-use plastic is offered, people can make the choice to refuse it. As social psychologist John Bargh said, “the more you practice doing something, the less effort it takes.” If we can make reuse a habit, it will be far easier to curb the plastic problem that seems to be overtaking the planet.