Now is the Time to End the Assault on Plastic Straws

Gordy Leech ’23

Contributing Writer

Believe it or not, by Trinity depriving you the privilege of using a plastic straw with your smoothie from Mather, you’re not saving the sea turtles. A 2017 study by the Ocean Conservancy Group from the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment found that the people of the United States aren’t the ones who are depositing the plastic into the ocean and harming our sea turtles. It turns out over half of land-based plastic waste leakage isn’t even coming from the United States or North America – It’s coming from China, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam. In addition, a study by Dutch hydrogeologist Dr. Christian Schmidt found that the pollution running into our ocean isn’t a result of the actions by us, the “wasteful” Americans. As it turns out, 10 river systems in the world carry 90% of the debris that is running into the ocean. Those rivers are the Hai He, Yellow, Pearl, Yangtze, Ganges, Indus, Amur, and Mekong in Asia, as well as two in Africa: the Nile and the Niger. 

Although the United States isn’t the biggest bad guy, we do still play a part in global pollution, and even some is worse than none. However, this move from plastic to alternative sources isn’t any better. When I came here on my first day this year, Trinity gave me two metal straws to do their part in saving the environment. But are these any better for the environment than plastic straws? To address this, researchers at Humboldt State University analyzed the environmental efficiency of plastic straw alternatives. The study found that the stainless-steel straw must be used 102 times to equate to the embedded energy used in creating plastic straws, and then another 149 times to account for the carbon emissions. Within the first week of classes, I lost both of my plastic straws, and many friends of mine forgot theirs in my quad, unable to use them 

the 100+ times necessary 

to do their part to fight climate change. Other alternatives like glass must be used 45 times to make up for the embedded energy and carbon emissions, and bamboo straws must be used 32 times to account for the increased energy use and 27 times to account for the carbon emissions.

In addition to the increased harm of alternatives and the limited effect the United States’ plastic straw waste has on the global environment, plastic straws have a beneficial implementation for certain groups of people: the disabled. Those who may not have fine motor skills may be in need in using a straw when consuming their meals. The flexibility and softness of plastic straws provides a convenience and safety unique compared to alternatives. By enforcing this social stigma of using plastic straws and directing our efforts towards banning them without improved alternatives, we’re preventing people who were born different from being able to enjoy themselves when going out to a restaurant or wanting to have a drink when they may not be able to proficiently drink from a cup with their hands. 

Should we be giving out plastic straws like they’re candy on the 4th of July? No, even a little harm to our environment is still harm, but our environmentally conscious efforts would be better spent elsewhere, and the social stigma of using a plastic straw is unnecessary and harmful towards certain groups of people. 

In the bigger picture, what are possible solutions to fighting the pollution in the ocean? One idea would be privatizing it. Economist Walter Block, in his paper “Water Privatization,” argues “there are vast areas of human existence where private property rights play no role at all: oceans, seas, rivers and other bodies of water. But why should we expect that there would be any better results from such ‘water socialism’ than we have experienced from socialism on land?” Through electronic fencing, we could sell plots of the ocean to private firms who would have an incentive to protect it. Private owners would have an incentive to take care of their property, much like private individuals who own land do. Individuals who own wooded space that allow hunting on it have an incentive to have a lively and healthy animal population or else they would lose business. Kinds of pollution or environmental damage that would harm the ecosystems could result in lost business, thereby incentivizing the firms to protect those animals and ecosystems. Even if the owners don’t run a business on their electronically fenced in plot, they would have an incentive to take good care of their area for future sale, just as individuals do today with their land.

If we really want to save the planet, we’re not going to do it by banning plastic straws in the United States, as the environmental effects from using a plastic straw with your smoothie at Mather are minimal, and the social repugnance has unnecessary negative spillover effects on others. To improve the state of our Earth’s water’s, we must seek alternative solutions like ocean privatization.