The Year of the Plastic Straw Ban

Plastic Drink Beach

Plastic straws and stirrers are currently the seventh most common item collected during coastal cleanups. Recently, they have become the target of a number of governments and food industry organizations seeking to address the issue of plastics-based ocean pollution. In the last year, at least a dozen cities (many of them coastal) have banned plastic straws and many major U.S. companies have either implemented plastic straw bans or scheduled one in the near future.

The movement to ban these single-use drinking utensils picks up on the momentum generated by other single-use plastic bans. Perhaps the most well-known movement to ban single-use plastics has been the effort to ban or tax plastic bags. In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to ban plastic bags. Throughout the early 2000s, a number of other countries in Asia and Africa adopted outright bans or took a combined approach, banning ultrathin bags (usually less than 30 micrometers thick) and levying taxes on thicker plastic bags. Other countries in Europe and North America have opted for bag levies with Germany and Denmark leading the way in the early 1990s.1

Similar to the plastic bag bans that dominated headlines a few years ago, plastic straw bans seem to be rippling through various municipalities and businesses. Indeed, this summer it has become especially difficult to keep up with the news on efforts to prohibit the use of plastic straws. To give just a brief glimpse of the current status of the movement, here is a look at efforts to ban or phase out plastic straw use across the United States in 2018:

  • February 4: A city-wide plastic straw ban took effect in Fort Meyers Beach, FL.
  • February 26: Malibu, CA city council approved a proposed ban on plastic straws, stirrers, and utensils. The ban took effect on June 1.
  • May 23: Rafael L. Espinal Jr., a New York City councilperson, combined efforts with the Give a Sip initiative and introduced a bill to ban single-use plastic straws and stirrers.
  • May 31: Bon Appétit Management, which owns over 1,000 food-service locations in 33 U.S. states, announced plans to complete a phase-out of plastic straws and stirrers by September 2019.
  • July 1: Seattle’s city-wide ban on plastic straws and utensils went into effect. Restaurants and food service providers in the city must now provide recyclable or compostable utensils to customers, and failure to comply with the law can result in a $250 fine.
  • July 9: Seattle-based coffee retailer Starbucks announced global plans to phase out single-use plastic straws by 2020.

The movement to ban single-use plastic drinking utensils is not confined to the United States. European governments are also taking up proposals to limit single-use plastic products. On April 18, the United Kingdom Government announced plans to ban plastic straws, stirrers, and plastic-stemmed cotton swabs as part of their 25 Year Environment Plan. In a press release, Prime Minister Theresa May also committed to calling on other Commonwealth countries to “join in the fight against plastic pollution.” A little over a month later, on May 28, the European Commission put forth a broad proposal to not only ban plastic, single-use eating and drinking utensils, but also limit or restrict other plastic goods such as cotton swabs, beverage containers, filters on tobacco products, and even fishing gear.2

The photograph shows a collection of debris on a sandy beach, including plastic straws, bags, and bottle caps. Plastic straw bans, plastic bag bans, and other single-use plastic bans aim to reduce this pollution.

Bottle caps, bags, and other debris collect on a sandy beach. Although bans on plastic straws, plastic bags, and other single-use plastics are not a perfect solution to the crisis, they speak to an increasing effort to stem the tide of pollution. Photo by Bilyjan, July 2016.

Despite calls for a broader adoption of these plastic straw bans, there is also strong resistance to this movement. Some critiques point to the fact that plastic straws, if measured per item, make up only four percent of ocean debris. If measured by weight, the number is much smaller—less than a quarter of a percent. Such criticisms suggest that environmentalists should be focusing their efforts on bigger issues such as ghostfishing and assert that, even if enacted globally, plastic straw bans would fail to accomplish much.

Other criticisms come from some disability rights activists who object to full-scale bans. In addition to claiming that the plastic straw problem is minor, they argue that total bans would ignore the needs of those who rely on disposable plastic straws to drink independently. Reusable straws made of wood or metal can be harmful, and paper straws lack the flexibility to actually make drinking easier. Further, disability rights activists argue that targeting plastic straws can exclude disabled people from the environmental movement and lead to ecoshaming.

Too often, efforts to clean up the environment heap the bulk of the responsibility and guilt on the individual consumer.

These critiques are valid. Too often, efforts to clean up the environment heap the bulk of the responsibility and guilt on the individual consumer, thereby tilting the cultural capital of an environmentally-friendly lifestyle unfairly toward those who, physically and financially, can afford it. In such a movement, there is little room for broader critiques of the consumer culture and dependence on non-renewable energy resources that characterize industrialized, energy-greedy nations.

And yet, despite these flaws, some good can also be gleaned from the movement to ban single-use plastic drinking utensils. For one, we now have enough hindsight to assess the effectiveness of plastic bag bans and levies, and in many places they seem to be working. California, for example, banned plastic bags in 2014 and has since seen a steady decrease in the number of plastic bags found during beach cleanups. A plastic straw ban can also prompt those who use single-use plastics out of convenience, rather than necessity, to rethink their consumption behaviors. Additionally, increased awareness about the harms of single-use plastics have prompted researchers to seek more sustainable alternatives. And while continuing to produce disposable products is not an end goal in itself, these alternatives could buy us some time to seek and implement broader and more deeply systemic reforms. In fact, some have argued that the attention currently paid to plastic straws could serve as a “gateway plastic” that could prompt more serious and far-reaching discussions about the problematic economic reliance on fossil fuels (the raw material of plastic) and products made to be thrown away.

The problem of ocean pollution certainly is not getting any better. Every year approximately 9 million metric tons of land-based plastic waste enters the ocean.3 And we now know that plastics are not just a problem in the ocean. Recently, scientists from the University of Hawaii found that plastics emit greenhouse gases methane and ethylene when they are exposed to sunlight. Further, polyethylene—a common type of plastic often used in the production of plastic straws and other single-use items—was found to be “the most prolific emitter of both gases.” Bracketing the success or failure of any particular plastic ban, it is difficult to deny the urgent need to rethink the production, consumption, and disposal of plastics on a number of scales—individual, societal, and global.

Featured Image: Clear Plastic Cup on Gray Concrete Surface, Alexander Kim, January 2018.

Nicole Bennett is a PhD student in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research interests are focused on waste as both a concept and material object, especially in postmodern and contemporary American fiction. Her broader research inquiries concern the ways in which pollution, contamination, toxicity, trash, and disposability are represented visually and narratively. Contact.

  1. Dirk, Xanthos and Tony R. Walker. “International policies to reduce plastic marine pollution from single-use plastics (plastic bags and microbeads): A review.” Marine Pollution Bulletin, vol. 118, May 2017, pp. 17-26. 

  2. While there are numerous movements to ban plastic bags, utensils, and microbeads, fishing nets and other abandoned fishing gear makes up the majority of macroplastic pollution found in the ocean (Lebreton et al.). 

  3. A widely-cited 2015 report in Science estimated that in 2010, somewhere between 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of land-based plastic waste entered our oceans.