2018 has not been a good year for straws. The cities of Seattle and Vancouver have already banned them, and it looks like New York City, Washington, D.C., Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco will soon follow suit. Once straws were pegged as enemy no. 1 to sustainability, Starbucks announced that they, too, have decided to phase out their use of plastic straws. While most of the coverage of this move has been positive, there are some who have raised valid concerns. Will this move to eradicate plastic straws help the planet? Or will it ultimately cause more harm than good, as many previous environmental initiatives have done?
Starbucks plans to replace the tried and true lid+straw for all beverages with the same lid they currently use for their nitro cold brew. If you've never ordered a nitro cold brew from Starbucks, the lid resembles a sippy cup and is also made of plastic. This move is a cause for concern among those with disabilities, but it also may not be very helpful for the environment. While these new, strawless lids yield only one piece of plastic waste instead of two, Reason recently reported that they actually use more plastic than the old lid and straw put together.
Right now, Starbucks patrons are topping most of their cold drinks with either 3.23 grams or 3.55 grams of plastic product, depending on whether they pair their lid with a small or large straw. The new nitro lids meanwhile weigh either 3.55 or 4.11 grams, depending again on lid size.
This punches a hole in the narrative that Starbucks is saving the planet for a number of reasons. The first being that these strawless lids will likely yield more microplastics if dumped into the ocean. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, microplastics are pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters long that are harmful for marine life. Large pieces of plastic that have broken down are a major source of the microplastics drifting through our oceans. That means the problem of plastic waste is about more than the number of pieces of plastic entering the ocean–weight matters too.
Secondly, straws make up only 4 percent of the total plastic waste in the ocean. That number shrinks if measuring the impact of plastic straws by weight instead of by piece. Furthermore, communities in the developing world that lack proper waste management systems are the main source of the plastic filling our oceans. The amount of Starbucks trash floating around is likely negligible. All things considered, this move to halt the use of plastic straws will not affect our planet in any way. If anything, it looks like it could contribute to the growing microplastics problem.
If the anti-straw movement does, in fact, increase the amount of plastic in the ocean, it wouldn't be the first time environmentalists have hurt the environment and the consumer alike. Remember ethanol? The corn-based fuel that received massive government subsidies because it was better for the planet? Well, it turns out that it's actually terrible for the planet. According to Yale, Ethanol still produces high levels of air pollution, and it's production required destroying acres upon acres of forest. In addition, it's terribly inefficient and proved to be damaging to car engines. To top it off, the federal subsidies for its production caused corn prices to increase.
Many have acknowledged that ethanol was a fool's errand and have instead put their hope in electric cars. But those who are committed to the demise of fossil fuels may be in for another rude awakening. Electric cars may not produce the exhaust of gasoline-powered cars, but electricity has its own problems. See, electricity is produced at power plants, and in most places, those power plants burn coal, another fossil fuel. The increased use of electric cars increases the need for electricity, which is leading to the construction of more coal-burning power plants around the globe. This will ultimately yield more CO2 emissions, which environmentalists believe will ultimately destroy the planet.
In the U.S. and Europe, it's easy to rail against the natural resources that have made our high standard of living possible, but for other regions, ending the use of fossil fuels is unthinkable. BRIC countries are among many emerging markets that depend on fossil fuels for growth. Fossil fuels are the stairway out of poverty for people in these countries, but those in the West whose lives are secure have little regard for this fact. When common sense, or the simple acknowledgement of facts, is removed from environmentalism, the result always hurts the consumer, and oftentimes, the environment as well.