SUBRAMANIAN: Focus on banning plastic straws misses bigger and more pressing environmental issues


Gen Z cares deeply about the environment. In fact, climate change was this generation’s most-cited concern for the future, according to a poll by Amnesty International. Gen Z is also more likely to buy from sustainable brands. As a result, local governments have taken steps to address this issue.

One of the most notable means has been the banning of plastic straws – for example, in the cities of St. BarbaraCalifornia and washington d.c.. In New Jersey, companies can only give plastic straws to those who ask for them. Yet the efforts of many of these governments are misplaced and simply insufficient.

The ramifications of these plastic straw bans can often harm the most disadvantaged in American society. For example, these bans on plastic straws tend to hurt members of the disabled community most. Many disabled people with mobility and/or strength issues rely on these readily available plastic straws.

Get rid of plastic straws perpetuates the privilege of able-bodied people to live in a world designed for them. Like the one in New Jersey, opt-in systems can still harm the disability community disproportionately.

The reason for this is that it increases the burden faced by members of the disability community, especially disabilities that are not visible. What makes matters worse is that it can put the power in the hands of the company, which can choose to deny a disabled person a necessary tool in their life.

Outside of plastic straws, there aren’t many good options available. The two most common alternative straws featured would be paper and metal straws, but these work much worse than plastic straws. For example, with paper straws, it’s no surprise that paper in liquid will usually disintegrate. As a result, these straws don’t last long and may require more paper straws per drink than a plastic straw.

Moreover, these paper straws are still not very eco-friendly. These types of straws require deforestation and the expenditure of a considerable amount of energy, which leads to more greenhouse gases being pumped into the air. Moreover, these paper straws are still Disposablewhich means that once you’re done with them, they go in the trash to sit in a landfill until they decompose.

This means that paper straws offer virtually no environmental benefit while failing to ameliorate the plastic straw dilemma. in a significative way.

Metal straws are the second most popular alternative to plastic straws. On the surface, the benefits are many. For example, metal straws are reusable, which solves the biggest problem of single-use plastic straws. But the process of creating a metal straw is intense and quite problematic. The energy to craft a metal straw is equivalent to crafting 90 plastic straws.

Additionally, the metals needed to create metal flakes, such as nickel, often require exploitative mining operations, increasing particulate matter emitted into the atmosphere and leading to adverse health consequences. Not to mention that restaurants that use metal straws report higher rates of flight of these straws, which requires more replenishment and increases the environmental cost.

The question must be asked: who benefits from the demonization of plastic straws? It’s not the general public, because it forces us to face worse alternatives and new systemic inequalities. The real winners are businesses.

By focusing on plastic straws and reprimanding members of society for their use, less attention is paid to these companies and their negative environmental impacts. Of the 8 million tonnes of plastic that enter the oceans each year, only 0.025 percent of this can be attributed to plastic straws.

This type of greenwashing forces the solution into the hands of companies who now have to innovate us to solve the problem when in reality they are the problem. Encouraging our governments, the most capable force we have to defend ourselves, to lobby and regulate these companies regarding their environmental actions will go far beyond signaling virtue on Twitter. But hey, what do I know?

Kiran Subramanian is a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences specialization in economics and political sciences. Her column, “Whadda I Know,” airs every other Tuesday.

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