Opinion: The Problem With Plastic Straw Bans
In the wake of the US exit from the Paris Climate Accord last summer, municipal governments across the country have taken it upon themselves to pass strong environmental legislation to make up for the federal government’s inaction regarding climate change. Recently, Seattle made national headlines with its ban on disposable straws, following social media campaigns highlighting their impact on marine life. Other cities and companies, like Santa Barbara and Starbucks, have followed Seattle’s lead. So, should Philadelphia be next?
First, it is irresponsible for any environmental legislation or measure by activists to be inequitable. The straw ban was met with outcry from disability activists, as many disabled people rely on disposable straws to ingest fluids safely and easily. People with tremors, chronic pain, and other symptoms which prevent them from drinking without a straw are quite literally dependent on single-use plastic straws, as many substitutes are difficult to clean or compromise taste and comfort. Taking such a hardline stance on single-use disposable straws, rather than taking steps to discourage their use for those who are able to give them up, punishes the disabled community more than anyone else. Any action which adversely impacts a marginalized group, even for the betterment of marine life, should be considered unacceptable by activists and legislators.
Second, measures which impact individual consumer habits do little to address the scope of climate change. While responsible consumption practices, like veganism and zero waste, bring positive change and carry important political statements, it is important to remember that the onus of climate change is not on individuals, but corporations. A recent study shows that only 100 companies are responsible for 71% of climate change since 1988 due to their production of and investment in fossil fuels.
The Real Problem WITH Plastics
The production of fossil fuels has led directly to coral reef bleaching and increased ocean acidity through surface water temperature rise, which has a far greater impact on marine life than individual plastic straws. (Editorial note: Plastic straws are a product of fossil fuels.) Banning single-use plastic straws is a drop in the bucket to address the overall impacts of fossil fuels, while disproportionately impacting individual consumers with disabilities rather than the corporations responsible for climate change.
When it comes to climate change, legislation like this is easy. It follows a narrative that people respond to: protecting marine wildlife from a tangible, familiar item. This is why recycling, anti-littering, and ethical food consumption have become popular over the years because adjusting consumer habits is easy. Yes, individuals who make choices with the climate in mind are, without a doubt, making a positive impact on the environment, and those able should absolutely continue to cut down on their waste and consume responsibly. But consumers can’t solve the problem alone, as Scientific American recently covered.
However, the people and corporations most responsible for climate change continue to face no penalty for their actions and continue to keep us reliant on fossil fuels. Their impacts are less visible, making it more difficult to gain public interest in legislation that would halt these impacts. But Philadelphia, and the state of Pennsylvania, have a responsibility to halt the harmful impacts of fossil fuels and protect marginalized groups, rather than punish them for the actions of those at the top.