The rush to clean up the oceans by deep-sixing plastic straws is swelling as big corporate fish like Starbucks jump aboard, even as skepticism builds over whether the campaign is more trouble than it’s worth.
The coffee giant announced Tuesday that it will eliminate by 2020 its signature single-use green straws, the kind found in Frappuccinos and other cold drinks, joining a growing list that includes Hilton, Hyatt, American Airlines, SeaWorld and IKEA, as well as Seattle.
The rising tide has alarmed disabled people, many of whom cannot drink from standard cups, while recent research has shown that when it comes to ocean waste, plastic straws and utensils discarded by U.S. consumers represent a drop in the bucket.
“It’s a symbolic effort that isn’t going to help anything,” said Angela Logomasini, senior fellow at the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute. “We’re trading a lot for nothing in return.”
She pointed to a 2017 study by German researchers in the journal Environmental Science & Technology that found 10 rivers in Asia and Africa are responsible for 88 to 95 percent of the plastic debris found in the world’s oceans.
“The concern is about plastics in the ocean, which is a real concern, but banning plastic straws isn’t going to fix it because they’re not the source of the problem,” said Ms. Logomasini. “The problem is a disposal problem. Most of it is in Asia and Africa because they have open dumps and they pour tons of trash into the ocean. They don’t have the proper disposal methods. If you dispose of something properly, it’s not a problem.”
A study published in March by Ocean Cleanup found that 52 percent of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was fishing nets, ropes and lines, while “microplastics” accounted for 8 percent of the total mass.
Companies have said they will phase in paper straws or bamboo coffee-stirrers, but Ms. Logomasini pointed out that plastic products are more environmentally friendly than those made of paper in at least one respect: Producing plastic takes less energy.
“Making paper is more energy intensive. So are we getting ahead? Probably not. I mean, it’s stupid,” she said. “Why would Starbucks ban straws in Omaha, Nebraska? They’re not getting in the ocean in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s ridiculous.”
Even environmentalists cheering the plastic-straw bans have acknowledged that they won’t have much impact on ocean pollution, but defend the campaign as a way of raising awareness about the issue.
“Banning plastic straws won’t save the oceans. But we should do it anyway,” said Vox in a Monday article.
Dune Ives, executive director of Lonely Whale, which launched last year the Strawless in Seattle campaign, said “the straw becomes this gateway conversation that makes you realize how pervasive and ubiquitous the problem is.”
“Our straw campaign is not really about straws,” Mr. Ives told Vox. “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.”
Leveraging bans on plastic straws to draw attention to ocean garbage has real-world consequences for the disabled, however, many of whom cannot lift cups to their mouths or substitute paper or bamboo straws.
Lawrence Carter-Long, spokesman for the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, faulted Seattle for failing to consult with or take into account disabled people when moving ahead with its ban on plastic utensils and straws, which went into effect July 2.
“Everyone would like to see viable options to plastic straws, but the practical reality is they don’t yet exist. So we need to take that into account,” said Mr. Carter-Long. “We need to make those accommodations.”
Seattle officials have said that restaurants may provide plastic straws to disabled customers on request, but Mr. Carter-Long said establishments have yet to make the exemption known.
“You’ve got to make that information available both to the public and restaurant owners,” he said. “What we’re hearing in Seattle is the restaurant owners are being told one thing — there’s an outright ban, no one can use plastic straws — and disabled people when they’re calling and asking about this are being told there’s an exemption, but nobody’s seen the exemption.”
Others argue that plastic straws are more sanitary, citing concerns about salmonella rising from cloth shopping bags, which have become more popular in the face of bans on plastic bags.
Even so, the momentum keeps building. New York City and San Francisco are both considering similar measures, and Mr. Carter-Long said there’s scuttlebutt that a plastic-straw ban will be introduced in Congress.
Certainly the anti-plastic camp has compelling PR. A 2015 video showing a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose drew worldwide attention, while the #StopSucking campaign on social media has drawn support from celebrities, including New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
“No more single-use plastic straws. The effect of these little guys [is] posing a huge health risk to our planet,” said Mr. Brady in a video posted last month on Instagram.
Starbucks, which uses an estimated 1 billion straws per year at its 28,000 company-owned stores, plans to phase in recyclable straws and redesigned lids that resemble “sippy” cups.
Nicholas Mallos, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program, urged companies to follow Starbucks‘ example, citing the “important role that companies can play in stemming the tide of ocean plastic.”
“With eight million metric tons of plastic entering the ocean every year, we cannot afford to let industry sit on the sidelines, and we are grateful for Starbucks leadership in this space,” said Mr. Mallos in a statement.
Companies determined to make a real difference may want to spend less time focused on straws and more time on the wastewater situation in developing countries, said Julie Gunlock, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Institute.
“Instead of American companies gesturing their concern by banning straws in American coffee houses,” said Ms. Gunlock in a Federalist op-ed, “they might focus their energy and money (money Starbucks is currently using to transition each store’s straw and lid stocks), to real solutions — like helping to better develop and modernize waste water treatment in Asia and Africa.”