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New legislation (AB 1884) proposed by California Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon to decrease plastic pollution by requiring restaurants to offer plastic straws only upon request is facing pushback. And not from the restaurant industry that would save money.

In a state that responded to drought by requiring restaurants to offer water only upon request, a similar law addressing a non-recyclable, single-use plastic product makes a lot of sense. The consequences of plastic pollution are serious.  Not only does it threaten our significant tourist industry by imposing an eyesore on our beaches, it also affects our health and fishing industry by entering our food chain. The Environmental Protection Agency produced a scientific paper on the impacts of plastic pollution on aquatic life — and even conservative Fox News has reported on the perils of plastic-contaminated seafood.  (Watch this video for a rather gruesome illustration of how plastic straws affect marine life.)

Plastic found inside one dead seabird. (Photo: Dr. Carol Meteyer, USGS/Wikimedia Commons)

Plastic straws are consistently found littering our beaches and, having no resin code, they are not recyclable.  Providing straws only upon request is a sensible solution — most people don’t need a straw and, as education concerning the detrimental impacts of plastic straws on our environment and health increases, it is likely that even more won’t choose one. To be clear, this law is not a limitation on freedom, but rather a restriction on an unwanted, disposable petroleum product.

Yes, most straws are made from fossil fuels. Who wants to stick with the status quo of plastic straws in every drink?  Think Big Oil.

Drill, Baby, Spill (60″ by 30″ oil on canvas by Michael D’Antuono)

With a climate change-denying President in the White House and the former CEO of Exxon, Rex Tillerson, in his cabinet, America just hit a new record in fossil fuel production — and the petrochemical corporations are crowing.

At the same time, plastics production is set to explode.  The Guardian recently reported:

The global plastic binge which is already causing widespread damage to oceans, habitats and food chains, is set to increase dramatically over the next 10 years after multibillion dollar investments in a new generation of plastics plants in the U.S.

Fossil fuel companies are among those who have ploughed more than $180bn since 2010 into new “cracking” facilities that will produce the raw material for everyday plastics from packaging to bottles, trays and cartons.

The new facilities – being built by corporations like Exxon Mobile Chemical and Shell Chemical – will help fuel a 40% rise in plastic production in the next decade, according to experts, exacerbating the plastic pollution crisis that scientist warn already risks “near permanent pollution of the earth.”

“We could be locking in decades of expanded plastics production at precisely the time the world is realising we should use far less of it,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the US Center for International Environmental Law, which has analysed the plastic industry.

China, once on the receiving end of most of our plastic waste, is now restricting imports of our junk.  So we are stuck with our plastic waste — and unnecessary, non-recyclable items should be the first to go.

In the case of straws, there is plenty of evidence to support reversing the current practice of automatically serving them with all drinks. Straws are consistently in the top ten (usually in fifth, sixth, or seventh place) most common pollutant items found on beaches around the globe and in California on International Coastal Clean Up Day.  In 2017, the international report calculated that the number of straws found on just that one day were enough to equal 145 times the height of One World Trade Center in New York City.  And what’s even more astonishing is that we can presume that this one day out of the year is completely par for the course, that the waste stream is continuous.

Plastic straws on a California beach after the season’s “first flush” of rain. (Photo: Lisa Kaas Boyle)

 

Right now the battle over the straw law in the press is not over the fact that plastic, non-recyclable straws are accumulating in and polluting our environment, but rather over how many are actually being used.  Snopes puts an end to this red herring:

While no one, presumably, is in favor of choking the oceans and landfills with plastic waste, some have questioned one of the central assertions put forward to justify restrictions on straw usage, namely that a half-a-billion single-use plastic straws are thrown away in the United States every day (which amounts to 180 billion straws per year, an exceedingly large number). The figure is even cited in Calderon’s press release, which stated:

“An estimated 500 million straws are used in the United States every day. This number is enough to fill over 127 school buses each day and is calculated to be about 1.6 straws per person in the U.S.  In a summary of all trash collected as part of California’s Coastal Cleanup Day between 1989 and 2014, straws and stirrers rank as the 6th most common item collected.”

The statistic is often attributed to the U.S. National Park Service (which did reference it in a 2013 environmental call for action), but the 500 million figure ultimately rests on the word of 16-year-old Milo Cress, who launched a campaign in 2011 (at the age of nine) called Be Straw Free. Cress told Reason magazine that he arrived at the estimate, which he said has been privately endorsed by the National Restaurant Association, by conducting a phone survey of straw manufacturers in 2011. No one has proven that figure wrong, mind you; it’s just that Cress is its only source and no one has confirmed his research independently.

That’s a mere academic quibble, proponents of reducing plastic straw usage could well argue, given that an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic garbage ends up in the world’s oceans every year (and that’s according to a peer-reviewed study). Waste is waste. Efforts to curb it have to start somewhere.

With respect to environmental prosecutions and policymaking, evidence concerning a pollutant’s harm is typically challenged as incomplete or inaccurate — but it is often the case that the polluter is the party with access to more complete facts, while those interested in preventing or cleaning up the pollution have more limited evidence of harm. For example, fossil fuel companies (such as Exxon) know how much carbon and chemical payload they are emitting into our environment.  But they have a financial interest in continuing to pollute and, thus, the evidence mounted outside of those financial interests is not enough to curtail the harm.  These days, our President promotes climate change denial even when Exxon no longer does.

There is hope on this front, however, as several lawsuits are now aiming to hold the fossil fuel companies liable for climate change.  And despite the Trump administration’s committed support for fossil fuels, the market for green energy continues grow. California, on track to become the world’s fifth largest economy, is leading the way in America with renewable energy.  Perhaps the mounting and undeniable scientific evidence about the harms of single use plastics will lead to real change.

But the battle for change will have to be waged outside the federal government during Trump’s time in office.   The EPA once kept records of the amounts of plastic in our municipal waste, but my recent visit to the agency’s website instead revealed,  “EPA Web Archive: This content is not maintained and may no longer apply.”

Single use plastics are a lucrative business because they are used only once and then discarded, requiring continual repurchasing.  While the environmental and health costs they impose are more difficult to quantify, they are significant in many ways to our lives now, and in the future. (See this excellent TEDx talk by a California city administrator on the missed opportunity costs incurred by Long Beach when budgeting for the growing costs of plastic pollution.)

Perhaps sensing that a plastic straw ban may be forthcoming in a large market like California, even the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the plastics trade association, has come to support limitations of their product in the name of “product stewardship.”

We know enough about plastic straws to support banning them altogether — and certainly to merely limit their use with this sensible legislation.  Anyone arguing otherwise has a plastic straw in the game.

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