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Jan Lee headshot

The Plastic Straw Ban: When Inclusiveness Drives Discussion

By Jan Lee

The push for a global ban on plastic straws has been gaining momentum in recent weeks -- with critics lining up on both sides of the issue to make their concerns known.

San Francisco, which is home to several hundred niche tea shops, is crafting its own controversial bill to nix the product from city streets. According to the bill, not even compostable plastic straws will be allowed to be served within city limits.

And rum distiller Bacardi has teamed up with Lonely Whale to remove billion straws from circulation by 2020, promoting the initiative with the hashtag, #thefuturedoesntsuck.

Bacardi says it will kick off the campaign by removing straws from all of its public events. The two organizations are also encouraging consumers to express their support for banning straws by telling their server they don't want a straw whenever they order drinks. The company says it is working to reduce other plastics from its supply chain as well.

Straw freedom

But not everyone sees the effort to eradicate the use of plastic straws as a sign of enlightened progress.

In San Francisco, proprietors of bubble tea shops are criticizing the ban, which they say threatens their very ability to stay in business. The straw that is served with the bubble tea is an iconic part of the drink and fashioned specially to accommodate bubble tea, which comprises "bubbles" made of tapioca that are meant to be sucked out by a straw. Since the ban was announced, proprietors have been scrambling to build up their stock of paper straws, which come at a cost premium, can take months to order and also, say critics, do not work as well as plastic straws.

And for other critics, the straw has become the latest symbol of freedom of speech and expression. As the push to eliminate straws from public supply has grown, so have the strident voices of those who see the effort as an attack on their rights. One tweet by a gun-rights advocate included a photo of her holding her AR-15 and oversized drink cup with a straw. Her message, while some might argue missed the point of the environmental movement, was pretty clear: any effort to curtail the production of something that some may want is an infringement on rights, even if the use of those products infringes on the rights or safety of others.

“Hey, GOVERNMENT, you can’t take my AR-15, so what makes you think you can take my plastic straw?” she wrote. “I don’t need your permission, you are subordinate to me, and that’s the world you’re stuck living in.


Building a case against data: the 9-year-old mathematician

Critics of the #banthestraw movement have also been quick to point out that the statistics on which many organizations based their decision to ban straws from their supply chain didn't actually come from the National Park Service -- but from an enterprising 9-year-old boy from Vermont who conducted his own research study in 2011, who concluded Americans use 500 million straws a day. It seems that age is no barrier for resourcefulness these days when it comes to getting to the source of tough environmental problems.

Milo Cress (who is now 17) from Burlington, Vermont fit the shoes for the job when he decided to sit down and calculate just how many plastic straws are being used and thrown away every day in the U.S. For companies like Starbucks, Bacardi and Pernod Ricard (who undoubtedly have measured just how much volume they do order each year), that figure was good enough for them to launch their global campaigns.

But for others, the young mathematician's age has presented a stumbling block to credibility, suggesting that if a 9-year-old actually took the time and invested the skills to count all the used and discarded straws in the U.S, per day, it must be a "estimate" not an evidence of why the planet has a known environmental problem (or a suggestion that the U.S. elementary school system must be doing something right).

What Mr. Cress' numbers did do is put the issue of accountability squarely into focus. Since his bold counting experiment, various organizations have taken the challenge and fact-checked his data. Yes, it's high. The research agency Freedonia Group put the number closer to 390 million, just about equal to the entire population of the U.S. That number suggests, as his data did, that Americans are using straws and discarding them at such a pace as to give the appearance that every single American is culpable of the environmental crisis wrought by plastic straws.

Plastic straws, inclusive needs

For all of the discussion over this issue, there's one topic that continues to be minimized: inclusiveness. Will removing something that's always been regarded an optional choice for most but is an essential assistive device for many stigmatize those who can't rely on alternative sources like paper or metal straws? Should today's hashtag sayings that vilify the use of a product that quadriplegic individuals rely on for sustaining life be given a rewrite?

Those may become important questions to ask as the planet continues to change its sourcing and production systems. There's always at least two sides to a debate, and so often, one of them has a compelling, human need to be heard.

Image credit: John Ong (Flickr)

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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