Paper or plastic?

by Paul Holmes ([email protected]) 420 views 

As I waited for my change the other night at the basketball game, I looked around for the straw dispenser, intending to poke one into the crosshairs of the plastic lid of the plastic cup full of diet soda the concession worker was preparing to hand me.

I even went so far as to ask for one before noticing that the lid wouldn’t accommodate a straw. No indeed, that lid had a pre-formed spout on one side. I thought for a second that the concessionaire had thoughtfully considered people in my age demographic into account and was now furnishing adult sippy cups to us in an effort to reduce slurping and spills.

Then I realized that nope, I got that lid because everybody else who bought a soft drink in the arena on Friday night or the football stadium on Saturday got one just like it — a nod from the supplier, I suppose, to a growing movement in this country and internationally to limit or ban altogether the plastic drinking straw.

Though I’m not aware of any organized movement in these parts to ban or limit plastic straws, several locales have done so or are considering it. Seems the straw has suddenly become symbolic of all the junk that ends up in the world’s oceans as well as indicative of the wasteful nature of our throwaway society. A viral video of a sea turtle off the coast of Costa Rica with a straw lodged in its nose gave the movement much of its current traction.

The argument is that straws — which are non-biodegradable — are so small and lightweight compared to other plastics that they get left out of recycling efforts, or if they do make it to the recycler, they are tossed out by the sorting machinery, causing them eventually to end up in landfills or waterways.

USA Today noted earlier this year that plastic straws make up only about 2,000 tons of the nearly 9 million tons of the plastic waste in the world’s oceans, but they are symbolically more significant.

Seattle became one of the first major U.S. cities to ban food-service businesses from handing out plastic straws. New York City is considering it and Honolulu’s city council is expected to vote this month on legislation to ban polystyrene foam food ware, plastic utensils and plastic straws, but with a lengthy list of exceptions. Washington, D.C., banned them beginning Jan. 1 of this year.

St. Petersburg is among a handful of coastal cities that have adopted the policy. Milwaukee is considering it. The coffee shop chain Starbucks has said it will be plastic-straw free by 2020, and McDonalds has phased them out in their restaurants in the United Kingdom.

California’s law banning plastic straws in sit-down restaurants unless customers ask for them went into effect this year. I’m comforted, however, to know that plastic is still an option for to-go cups in Cali, in case I ever travel there again.

Those who oppose the plastic straw ban cite three primary reasons for the opposition. First, opponents note, using a straw may be the only way some disabled people can drink. Paper straws may be bitten through or broken. Reusable straws aren’t as flexible as plastic ones and can be easily forgotten at home.

Additionally, since paper costs more than plastic straws, banning plastic straws may harm local businesses by increasing their costs or forcing them to raise prices. Add to that a paper straw is a single-use item, just as a plastic straw is, so it still has to be disposed.

Also, some opponents of the plastic straw ban say that a ban is unlikely to actually help the environment much since plastic straws account for such a small percentage of plastic in the ocean. Proponents acknowledge that fact, but claim that reducing plastic straw waste is a “gateway” to reducing consumption and disposal of other single-use plastics. Maybe.

Since we in the Natural State are unlikely to elect Jerry Brown any time soon, why should we even care what they do in California or New York or Washington to get that last little slurp out of a drink cup?

There are a couple of possible answers to that question. First, as demonstrated at the arena and stadium, what other folks decide can impact us, regardless of how far from either coast we are located.

Secondly, what if this whole plastic straw ban thing were to continue sweeping the nation from the coasts inward? It seems somebody should come up with a scientific, sustainable alternative. Maybe there’s something that we already grow here that we can turn into the billions of straws that the world demands. Or maybe there is something new we can develop through research. Arkies are pretty good at problem-solving and in the process, making some money.

While such ideas as plastic straw bans may be well-intentioned, consumers are more likely to resist change when it comes from the government. Certainly, that is the case in Arkansas, where we tend to not like anyone telling us what to do. If on the other hand, we are educated about an issue and think it’s the right thing to do, we often make the correct decision without being ordered to do so. The plastic police would be the last straw.

Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author.