Plastic straw charade: don’t stop at #stopsucking

By Garrett Finn

Multimedia Editor

In the past six months or so I have noticed that restaurants, fast-food joints, and even Starbucks are taking environmental initiative by banning the use of plastic straws… and only plastic straws.

These businesses and the people who gravitate toward them have hopped right on their high horses about this new practice. They have a fun new way to promote environmental awareness by using #stopsucking on their social media posts, and all they had to do was drink their beverage without a straw.

Illustration by Garrett Finn

People see trends like this and all of a sudden think we’re moving in the right direction to save the planet. Sure, reducing any waste can help but why have plastic straws become the hero of the day?

Watching a video of a sea turtle struggling for its life because it has a plastic straw stuck in its nose is heartbreaking, and reason enough to stop using straws, especially when it was shared by your favorite movie star. However, our wildlife is dying from all kinds of change in their habitats, and the problem is much bigger than the 7.5 million little plastic tubes that are lying around America’s shorelines.

7.5 million straws sounds like a lot, right? This makes up a whole 0.02 percent of plastic waste that is in the ocean. But no, let’s forget about the other single use containers your strawless beverage will probably be served
in. Let’s forget about the unnecessary use of energy, water, fuel emissions, or the countless other unsustainable daily habits nobody will bat an eye at. You can even forget worrying about where all of our plastic is being sent to be dumped directly into the ocean.

As long as you take the pledge to #stopsucking, you can join your favorite celebrities in the latest movement of pseudo-activism and feel like you’re making a great sacrifice for the future of our planet.

Our national parks are diminishing, species are losing entire habitats, and California is currently being ravaged by two of its latest wildfires, yet the only new environmental call to action that has captured a wide range of the public’s devotion is to drink Starbucks out of a sippy cup.

For more than 25 years China was our main destination for exporting plastic waste, but recently China passed a policy banning the importation of plastic waste. For a country like the United States, exporting our plastic is economical, so we’re still shipping loads of plastic to neighbor countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia that have weak waste management systems. This practice can lead to plastic waste being dumped directly into the ocean or put in a landfill instead of being recycled, per a research article published in Science Advances by Amy Brooks, a doctoral student of engineering at the University of Georgia.

Five countries are responsible for 60 percent of all plastic waste dumped in the ocean: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, according to a study released by Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey. We send our plastic to these countries, so a lot of that floating plastic must be from us.

To be clear, my problem is not with the banning of plastic straws, my problem is that the hype built around the trend has put it at the forefront of environmental issues that need to be dealt with. Many prominent celebrities and athletes have promoted this fad by adding #stopsucking to their social media posts, which they can do from the comfort of their couches. Many businesses in the food and beverage industry have promoted the fad because if they hand us our drinks without a straw, we will assume they must be running an environmentally friendly operation.

Dune Ives, the executive director of Lonely Whale, the organization that started the widely popular social media #stopsucking, recently did an interview with Vox where he stated, “Our straw campaign is not really about the straws,” he went on, “It’s about pointing out how prevalent single-use plastics are in our lives, putting up a mirror to hold us accountable. We’ve all been asleep at the wheel.”

Despite what Ives said, this is not how the message has been conveyed by the people and companies that are promoting it. While organizations like Lonely Whale clearly have the right intentions, businesses like Starbucks, or influential celebrities like Russell Wilson and Ellen Pompeo are marketing the campaign in a way that implies straws are the greatest detriment to the ocean. This mindset leads to complacency, why change any other habits when we’ve already sacrificed our straws?

The movement to ban plastic straws is a solid jumping off point, but we cannot neglect our efforts to protect environmental threats that are just as serious, if not more. So as you commit to #stopsucking, remember that it should not stop there. While they may not be as trendy, or don’t come with a cool hashtag, there is a wide range of other forms of action that are just as easy as getting rid of straws, like committing to reducing your consumption, or your daily energy use. We should be working these kinds of habits into our daily lives, and they should be normalized, not celebrated individually.