Saturday, June 02, 2018

Enough with the Straws Already!

Plastic straw bans are becoming popular. Malibu has one. So does the UK. People are becoming aware of the harm done by plastic waste in the ocean, and bans are a way of addressing this problem.

As always, actions have unintended consequences. Some people with disabilities, including yours truly, need straws to drink from a glass. There are alternatives to plastic, but they all have downsides.

Before getting caught up in the environment vs. disability argument, let's look at a simple question. How much impact can straw bans actually have?

The most commonly cited statistic for straw use in the United States says we use 500 million of them a day. (That number has been disputed as being unreasonably high, but let's go with it.) Suppose each straw weighs 1 gram. Then we have:

5*10^8 straws/day * 365 days/yr * 1 g plastic/straw = 1825*10^8 g plastic = 1.825*10^8 kg plastic per year

Most of this plastic is properly disposed of, but let's say 1% enters the ocean. That's 1.825*10^6 kg plastic every year. Sounds like a lot.

According to Jenna Jambeck, the University of Georgia environmental engineering professor who brought the public's attention to ocean plastic a few years ago, 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. That's 8*10^9 kg. So completely eliminating all straw use in the US would reduce the influx of plastic to the oceans by less than 0.0002 (0.02%) of the total.

You think my assumption of only 1% of straws entering the ocean is too generous? OK, let's make the outrageous assumption that all the plastic used in straws in the US ends up in the ocean. All we have to do multiply the previous result by 100. In that case, eliminating all plastic straw use in the US would reduce the amount of plastic entering the ocean by 2% of the total.

So, what will it actually take to clean up the oceans? Let's start with diagnosing the problem. A 2016 Ocean Conservancy report says that over half of the plastic that ends up in the ocean comes from just five countries -- China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Looking specifically at waste that enters the ocean via rivers, a recent study estimated that up to 95% of this plastic enters the ocean from just 10 rivers, all of which are in Asia and Africa. What we are looking at is a case of waste management systems not keeping up with economic growth.

If that sounds like a complex problem, it is. Bans on certain single-use plastic items are likely part of the solution, although enforcement has been problematic. In the longer term, solutions will require both better materials management systems and new materials that biodegrade instead of persisting indefinitely -- a cradle-to-cradle economy.

So, sure, avoid straws if you don't need them. It's always a good thing to cut down on the use of nonrenewable resources and the production of persistent waste. But recognize that this is a minor issue and can be a distraction from more significant ones.