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Nick Aster headshot

Alaska Airlines Joins The War on Plastic Straws, But Does it Matter?

By Nick Aster

The battle to eliminate plastic straws has ratcheted up a notch with Alaska Airlines' recent announcement that they are doing away with the near useless stirry straws typically served with in-flight drinks and almost invariably lost beneath one's seat. The move comes with a PR blitz and a fair amount of online pontificating among sustainable types, not to mention a very successful press response.

To put this all in context, Alaska gave out more than 20 million straws and "citrus picks" in 2017 alone. Once the plan is in place, the airline will still offer wooden stir sticks, though only when requested.

Yesterday I found myself in the midst of a debate among friends on the context of Alaska's move and whether it was really a "big story." One camp firmly stood by the notion that any progress is good progress. The move might have a small impact on an airline's carbon footprint, but If it got passengers thinking about their waste stream and the plague of plastic that now fills our oceans and even bodies then Alaska deserves all the praise they get. Judging by the comments on their facebook page, that praise is rolling in. 

Another camp said, hold on a minute. If folks are asked to feel good about not using one crummy straw, it may have the ironic effect of letting them off the hook when it comes to more serious issues. The argument concerns the concept of "mindshare" - basically the fact that people can keep track of a limited amount of information on any given topic at any time. In other words, spending time getting people excited about the elimination of plastic straws on their flight may distract them from taking more serious action on bigger issues because they simply can't keep that much attention on the subject. 

I was asked to look up "moral credential bias" on the interwebs. Indeed, research suggests that there are situations where past 'good behavior' can often serve as a substitute in people's minds for future 'bad behavior.' To take it to an extreme, the logic in this case might be, "Well, I gave up that straw, so I think I'll buy a bigger SUV." Perhaps, though hard to prove. To get my head back on straight I talked to Bobbie Egan at Alaska who added a bit of history to the latest policy. The push to cut straws from flights was motivated about a year ago by a 16 year old airline fan who wrote to Alaska asking them to cut plastic waste. Additional help from non-profit organization Lonely Whale, and a large number of Alaska employees solidified into policy and has been widely welcomed into the company's existing sustainability efforts. No one at the airline is under the delusion that eliminating straws is a monumental achievement. It's rather seen as an incremental step in a long list of improvements, some bigger than others. The fact that this happens to be a fairly publicly facing change makes it a special opportunity to reach passengers and the wider public.

Less plastic waste is always a good thing. More public awareness about plastic alternatives is too. And you might say that the fact that this heated debate is happening is proof enough that Alaska's move has provoked a valuable conversation.  Does Alaska deserve a gold medal for ditching straws? Maybe not, but I think they certainly still get credit where it's due.

Finding a downside to this one is like grasping at straws. (image c/o Alaska Airlines)
Nick Aster headshot

Nick Aster is the founder of TriplePundit. Prior to launching 3p, Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years, and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He also worked for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging. Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

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