Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Monday, December 10, 2018

Opinion: Positive environmental change requires more than banning straws

Straws only account for .03 percent of plastic waste in our oceans. So why have we focused so much on it?

Opinion: Positive environmental change requires more than banning straws

We’re facing an environmental crisis. Some people have realized that, and some of those people have decided to try to do something about that. One of those things is banning straws.

Straws hurt the ecological health of our oceans. However, straws only account for 0.03 percent of plastic pollution in our oceans. Society started all this fuss about straws being the source of all evil and people just sucked it up, without any consideration to the grand scheme of things — a scheme in which banning straws does practically nothing to help our environment.

.03 percent.

Shouldn’t we be wondering what the other 99.7 percent is and finding an appropriate solution for that instead of raving about Starbucks’ new sippy cup? I personally think so. And so does Kara Lavender Law, a research professor who has studied plastic activity in marine environments.

“I’m not sure that straws are exceptional in terms of their impact to an ecosystem,” Law said in an interview with WIRED.

Law is right. When we really study things, we find that straws aren’t the pressing issue. The issue is the plastic water bottles you’re drinking from, the clothes you’re wearing, the wrap on your Subway sandwiches, your dorm room trash bin filled to the brim with empty Doritos bags, Powerade bottles and everything in between. To put it simply, it’s more than just straws.

So how did the straw initiative pick up so much steam if it isn’t really that consequential? I asked Chenyang Xiao, a sociology professor at AU, and he stressed that public perception was a big factor.

“This is a huge PR value, it helps companies show they are socially responsible,” Xiao said in an interview.

Ultimately, we’re talking about money. People are more likely to throw their cash at an establishment that sides with their values (and companies know this), leading companies to satisfy consumer expectations in order to accrue profit. AU coffee drinker Michael Weidenbrook agreed.

“For better or worse, a lot of the companies are more concerned about their profits than environmental impact. I don’t think Starbucks would have banned straws if it hurt their profits,” Weidenbrook said.

But, the model opposition argument yells, ‘Starbucks is only one company, and a company, in fact, that has accrued so much wealth and power that it has to have paid attention to consumer interest—if not, it would never have grown to such a size.’

This is factual. But what if we look at some companies that aren’t as big? What if we looked right here on our own campus?

The Davenport Coffee Lounge, one of AU’s most popular coffee shops, banned straws this fall. This ban comes with an asterisk. According to Jessica Chapman, the general manager, The Dav still provides compostable straws upon request to anyone—not just people with disabilities.

And what’s more, Chapman said that if her company experienced pushback from banning straws, they would have eventually brought back (compostable) straws. Notwithstanding, she personally believes that, for the sake of environmental health, “no straws are better than compostable straws.” Chapman is doing what all other business executives do. She’s making decisions directly based off of what the consumer wants rather than what is objectively good.

I digress. Obviously banning straws still helps to some extent, but doesn’t make a huge dent in our environmental crisis.

Let’s say we can dedicate 100 percent of our energy to do work on environmental matters. I’m sure we would all agree that it is best to use this energy as optimally as possible. Right now, however, it seems we are using energy inefficiently, by allocating more energy to less consequential problems—like straws.

Given scarcity of time and resources, you can take this in two ways. One is that we’re screwed. Companies and government are only concerned about environmental degradation insofar as it benefits them. Or you could believe that it’s entirely up to us— the constituents—to effect change and guide this country in the right direction.

Both are true, but they differ in their underlying attitudes. This represents a greater dichotomy: hope v. helplessness. We can develop learned helplessness and allow the big dogs up top to steamroll our planet into whatever corporate playground they fantasize. Or, we can stand up and dust ourselves off. We can take a look in the mirror, remind ourselves of our agency and do something about it.

Miguel Dickenson is a freshman in the School of Communications. They are an outside contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Eagle and its staff.

opinion@theeagleonline.co


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