inFact with Brian Dunning inFact with Brian Dunning

 

Plastic Straw Bans: Helpful or Stupid?

Many consider plastic drinking straws to be an environmental catastrophe, so bans on them are increasingly popular. But do these bans actually help any real problem?

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Everyone wants to save our oceans, and what many of us have been told is that banning plastic straws is a way to do that. Well, first of all, the sentiment is spot-on. There is a lot we can do to reduce harm to our oceans. But let's see if plastic straws are really the low-hanging fruit for activism.

So, we already know that about 8 million metric tons of plastic makes it into the oceans every year. The most often cited study says .025% of that is straws, so 2,000 metric tons. The US is responsible for somewhat less than 1% of that, so less than 20 tons of straws. That's about 45 million straws. That still sounds like a lot, but the oceans are really really big. That's only 1 straw for every 30 cubic kilometers of ocean.

And, best case scenario, plastic straw bans can only trade that plastic straw in the ocean for one made of some other material: glued paper, cellulose, or whatever.

So if plastic straw bans are so pointless, why do we have them? Turns out we've been able to track this down to one exact event that triggered it. On August 20, 2015, this video was posted to YouTube, showing a turtle that some marine biologists had caught for study. It had a plastic straw up its nose, which the biologists removed. The video went viral and made headlines all over the world. Using tools such as Google Trends and Google news search, we find that it was just over one year after that video's release that the first bans on plastic straws began to appear in newspapers. Prior to the turtle video, the news was devoid of any mention of banning straws. The data shows that one unlucky turtle is responsible for all the world's plastic straw bans. Emotion almost always trumps data.

Now if you watch this show, you know that I am always advocating for the reality of anthropogenic climate change. You've heard me argue that we need to get off of fossil fuels. You know that I am no shill for Big Oil or Big Plastic. So why would I say keep the plastic straws?

Because they're not a significant part of any real problems, and the time and energy and money that goes into them — think of all the litigation, bureaucracy, and cost to industry — is far better spent on more useful initiatives. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says ocean plastics are not a major threat to our oceans, not nearly to the degree of overfishing and global warming. For the same resources that we currently expend hoping to change the material of 1 straw in 30 cubic kilometers of ocean, we could fight overfishing and actually save sea turtles, and fight global warming and actually help the oceans.

— Brian Dunning

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References & Further Reading

Gibbens, G. "A brief history of how plastic straws took over the world." National Geographic. The National Geographic Society, 2 Jan. 2019. Web. 21 Feb. 2020. <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/07/news-plastic-drinking-straw-history-ban/>

Henry, T., Catarino, A. "Plastics in oceans are mounting, but evidence on harm is surprisingly weak." The Conversation. The Conversation US, Inc., 26 Mar. 2018. Web. 1 Mar. 2019. <http://theconversation.com/plastics-in-oceans-are-mounting-but-evidence-on-harm-is-surprisingly-weak-93877>

Jambeck, J., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T., Perryman, M., Andrady, A., Narayan, R., Law, K. "Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean." Science. 13 Feb. 2015, Volume 347, Issue 6223: 768-771.

Kristofferson, K., White, K., Peloza, J. "The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action." Journal of Consumer Research. 10 Apr. 2014, Volume 40, Number 6: 1149-1166.

NOAA. Ingestion: Occurrence and Health Effects of Anthropogenic Debris Ingested by Marine Organisms. Silver Spring MD: NOAA Marine Debris Program, 2014.

Stafford, R., Jones, P. "Ocean plastic pollution: A convenient but distracting truth?" Marine Policy. 13 Feb. 2019, 0308-597X.

Stevenson, S. "Straw Wars." Slate. The Slate Group, 12 Sep. 2019. Web. 21 Feb. 2020. <https://slate.com/business/2019/09/plastic-straw-bans-paper-culture-war.html>

 

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