COLUMN: Banning plastic straws is a good start for helping the environment

Plastic straws are a staple for establishments that serve drinks, but in recent months, there has been a move from many restaurants and corporations to ban plastic straws. It stemmed from a desire to lower single-use plastic waste.  Since then, however, there has been a lot of pushback from the public for a multitude of reasons. But, the benefits of banning plastic straws ultimately outweigh the costs. 

The argument against banning plastic straws starts with the needs of people with disabilities. Some may need plastic straws, such as someone who may not have the arm strength to lift a cup and needs a straw.  

While this is a legitimate concern, straw bans are rarely full-on bans. Most companies, such as Starbucks, will provide a straw upon request to customers who need them.

Other companies, rather than banning straws, provide straws made from alternative materials —such as paper or biodegradable plastic. In fact, the Starbucks in the Indiana Memorial Union recently made the switch to paper straws, which is an exciting step toward making IU more eco-friendly.

In these cases, the alternatives to plastic straws do not always work either. Compostable straws cannot withstand high temperatures, and metal or bamboo straws pose an injury risk for children or people with disabilities. Starbucks ordered a recall in 2016 of their metal straws for after reports of injuries.

Though Starbucks will still be giving out straws, the number of straws used will still be reduced since people need to make the conscious decision to ask for one. This will hopefully allow people to eventually realize that they don't need one after all.

Another reason for this pushback against banning plastic straws is the fact that these straws don’t make up a significant portion of the plastic pollution in the oceans. However, straws alone make up 4 percent of the ocean's pollution. It is estimated that there are 437 million to 8.3 billion plastic straws along the world's coastlines. 

Unlike other plastics which can be recycled but aren’t, plastic straws are often not recyclable at all, meaning even well-intentioned people will be sending some straws to an ocean somewhere. This makes straw replacements very valuable, as every step toward reducing plastic waste counts, however small. 

Starbucks, for example, has created a new lid which can be used with hot or cold drinks and does not require a straw. However, the company has received complaints that this new lid uses even more plastic than a plastic straw does. 

While this lid does use more plastic, these complaints miss the most exciting part of these new lids, which is that they are recyclable. Instead of ending up in the ocean, these lids can be recycled into other new products.

It is a dangerous argument to say that 4 percent of the ocean's pollution is not significant, because it implies that eliminating that 4 percent wouldn’t have any effect on the state of the environment. If people only think about pollution in these terms, nothing will ever be done. No action will seem like enough to be worthwhile. 

Any step toward change is important, and we can never right our wrongs to the planet unless we start somewhere. A dent must be made in humanity’s addiction to single-use plastics, and reducing our straw consumption is a start. 

An important next step companies could take in reducing single-use plastics would be to start providing paper bags instead of plastic bags or to incentivize the use of reusable shopping bags. Stores such as Target give customers discounts when they bring their own shopping bags. Over time, these discounts can really make it worthwhile for customers to stop using plastic bags. 

Only 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled, so reducing their use would create a huge effect on the environment. Combined with the reduction of plastic straw usage, the plastic pollution in the ocean would be reduced significantly. 

As a society, we would be closer to breaking our dependence on single-use plastics. 

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