My hometown has finally joined the civilized world in condemning a terrible scourge which has plagued the Earth for too long — plastic straws.
Iowa City Mayor Jim Throgmorton this week proclaimed this past Tuesday as Strawless Initiative Day, organized by a group of local preschool students who are encouraging businesses to reduce their use of straws. “One time Lena (a preschooler) saw a grown up throw garbage on the ground and kick it close to the Iowa River,” the proclamation begins.
My first reaction thought was while 5-year-olds may not be the most qualified arbiters of public policy, I admire their civic engagement and spirit of volunteerism at such a young age. It sounds like a reasonable deal. Forego a small convenience when you’re dining out, and do your part to protect baby turtles. The reality is not quite as simple.
A handful of American cities have imposed policies this year to restrict access to plastic straws, a response to environmentalists who are upset over the impact of discarded straws on water quality and wildlife.
Since 2011, environmental groups and many media outlets have parroted the shocking figure that Americans use 500 million straws a day, more than one each for every person living in the country. However, the statistic originated with the Colorado-based recycling processor Eco-Cycle, which attributes the finding to a research project conducted by 9-year-old child.
Even if that particular number is bogus, there’s no doubt Americans consume tons of single-use plastic each day. Since that material is not biodegradable, it has to go somewhere, and much of it ends up in the water. The World Economic Forum estimates there is more than 100 million tons of plastic in our oceans.
Whole straws and other plastic products can choke sea animals, but the bigger problem is that plastic breaks down into microparticles and releases toxins which may cause illness or even cancer in humans and animals alike. Straws make up a tiny portion of the all the plastic found in our water, far less than 1 percent by all credible accounts.
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And sometimes anti-straw campaigns lead to negative unintended consequences. After activists pressured Starbucks to join the effort, company officials announced they would phase out plastic straws over the next few years and replace them with a special lid which resembles a sippy cup.
That seemed like a free market win for the environment. However, a journalist at Reason magazine found the favored lids actually contain more plastic than the outgoing lid-and-straw combo. The Starbucks solution addresses one problem — baby turtles injured by their straws — but exacerbates another — overall plastic consumption.
The best way to reduce the amount of plastic in our landfills and our oceans is to drastically cut our use of plastic altogether. Choosing not to use a straw, or even banning plastic straws altogether, hardly makes a dent.
What efforts like the Iowa City strawless proclamation might do is force people to think about all the disposable amenities they use. And that’s good news. Bravo, preschoolers.
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