Written By: Michelle Angkasa
I’ll be the first to say it: I’m a passionate environmentalist who doesn’t hate plastic straws. Now, before people start showing up to my door with torches and pitchforks made with reclaimed barn wood or whatever, let me explain. I have no vendetta against turtles, as many voracious advocates against plastic straws may think, in fact, I love them. And that’s why the public tyranny against plastic straws is a prime example of shallow environmentalism and greenwashing.
It all began with that viral video of a poor sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose: that jarring image broke the hearts of millions of people around North America, and made us take that next sip of iced coffee a little more guiltily. Angry people took to social media, and soon the Internet was flooded with calls to ban plastic straws, concerned netizens joining together under the rallying cry of “Save our oceans”!
Obviously, this is a real problem. According to a 2015 report, it is calculated “that 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean”. Look up any report on the sheer amount of micro or macro plastics in the oceans: the numbers are astounding. Alternatively, regale yourself with horror stories about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which holds the infamous title of the world’s largest landfill and is estimated to be twice the size of Texas. These massive quantities of plastics lead to the deaths of marine species and contaminate human food and water sources. Furthermore, the continued production of plastic (which requires oil) is wreaking havoc on the environment and perpetuating global warming.
Thus, it’s clear that humanity has made a terrible choice in making plastic, an extremely durable, non-biodegradable, and difficult to recycle substance our go-to material for single use plastics. Think about the amount of items plastic is in and it’s virtually inescapable. From teabags to glitter to milk cartons, it’s almost an essential of modern life.
We have come to our reckoning, the vital tipping point where it’s becoming increasingly clear that we simply can’t continue externalizing the environmental degradation from our culture of overconsumption. The environmental movement has a long and complex history which began around the 1960s and has evolved with new science through the decades. And though scientists and other academics are at the forefront of gathering current data, modelling for the future, and giving advice to policy makers, it is really the people who spur on real, lasting action. Where consumers go, business follows, and governments likewise. Therefore, it’s imperative to keep a pulse on the general trend of public consciousness and environmental movements, because it is often telling of what our society will look like in the near future.
Enough beating around the bush; I believe that long preface quite suffices justifying my original hypothesis: that the furor around banning plastic straws is a) quite ineffective, and b) is indicative of a surface level understanding of anthropogenic climate change and environmental degradation. Firstly, plastic straws make up less than 1% of plastic waste in oceans. By contrast, 46% of waste is comprised of commercial fishing nets, and on beaches, plastic food wrappers and bottles make up the majority of litter. Mega corporations such as Starbucks are switching to strawless lids, but that new design requires more plastic than the original straws. The company defends its decision by saying that the lids can be recycled, but
that then leaves the material to the mercy of various recycling systems (one study found that only around 9.5% of all plastic gets properly recycled).
If we wanted to be serious about reducing ocean plastic, there are several other things we can do. As several countries around the world have already begun to do, we can ban single use plastics, which the Canadian government plans to do by 2021. Most importantly, we also must hold businesses accountable for the plastic they sell to us (remember the glass milk bottle delivery system?).
Secondly, the inherent irony of pictures like this.
No need to adjust your television set: yes, that is a paper straw. Great job, Starbucks! My favourite part of this picture is the single use plastic cup that the straw comes in. But hey, at least it’s not a plastic straw, right?
This is greenwashing in a nutshell. More specifically, it’s an example of the Sin of The Lesser of Two Evils. Here, big corporations get “we care about the environment” points by replacing an evil with a slightly lesser one while ignoring the larger problem at hand. Thus they can avoid scrutiny and dodge responsibility for one more day.
My criticism of the plastic straw ban extends further than just this single issue: instead I think it speaks to a greater problem of conspicuous non-consumption. From veganism to the Zero Waste movement to the rising popularity of thrift stores, it’s a thread that runs through a lot of movements within the environment community.
Conspicuous non-consumption is the ideological opposite of conspicuous consumption, which to spare you a quick Google search, is the “spending of money on and the acquiring of luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power— the income or of the accumulated wealth of the buyer.” However, while some may flex their Supreme duffel bags or $300 sneakers that look like socks (sorry, Kanye), another type of buyer is trying to achieve a similar effect but with drastically different means. You can recognize someone who’s engaged in non-consumption by their rage-filled Twitter timeline filled with endless threads against the dairy industry, or perhaps their huge supply of bamboo utensils and beeswax wraps. To clarify, this is not a rant against veganism (or vegetarianism and flexitarianism), second hand clothes shopping, or going zero waste. Instead it’s a criticism of the corporations, social media influencers, and so-called “eco-activists” who employ fear or guilt to pressure others to subscribe to an “environmentalism” movement that’s effectively been taken over by capitalism.
One particularly salient example is the zero waste movement. Maybe you know one such YouTuber, Instagrammer, or influencer who touts a million expensive, bamboo or metal zero waste alternative to common products. Whether it be swapping out Saran wrap for beeswax wraps ($18 for 3 wraps), bamboo utensils for plastic ones ($15 for the set), or metal straws for single use ones (a pack of 4 Jeffree Star metal straws retails for $28), there is a seemingly endless list of things you must buy in order to not be vilified by the environmental community. You HAVE TO stop eating meat, buy an electric car, shop exclusively for vintage clothes, stock up on a hundred mason jars, and only purchase local, organic produce from farmers’ markets because God forbid you don’t have the time, energy, or money to fulfill this impossible list of requirements because you will be a bad environmentalist!
There are many things wrong with this mindset. Most apparent is the coercion and shaming behind it, much like“cancel culture” of social media that is so rampant nowadays. Evidently, trying to convince people to make better ecological decisions through guilt tripping and sensational news doesn’t work (I’m looking at you, PETA). After all, people respond best to opportunities, not limits. Stalwart vegans and vegetarians have tried for decades to sway the minds of their carnivorous counterparts, to varied levels of success. However, the rise of plant-based meat producers like Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat, who appeal to traditional markets with their impressive imitations of meat, have inspired more people to switch to a more plant based diet, while piquing many major fast food outlets’ interest. Again, consumers are pretty open minded and willing to take the greener alternative if it’s available, providing that it’s a carrot you’re offering, and not the stick.
Another problematic aspect of non-consumption that might not be as widely discussed is its glaring privilege. Not eating meat, shopping at thrift stores, or reusing old pasta sauce jars instead of buying new containers have historically been necessities, and not choices, for people of lower incomes. Much like how historically racialized and poorer neighbourhoods become gentrified as more affluent populations take over, these aspects of conspicuous non-consumption that are now trendy are often not choices for certain people. “Going vegan” isn’t for ethical or environmental reasons, it’s simply because they can’t afford meat. Same goes for shopping second hand or hoarding containers: it’s for the economic savings.
In short, the issue is this: people with socioeconomic privilege have appropriated these traditionally survivalist practices purely for the aesthetic. For this subsection of the environmental community, a bamboo toothbrush has the new Gucci belt: a symbol of “wokeness” and a minimalistic, aspirational lifestyle that coincidentally (surprise!) looks great on Instagram.
However, that isn’t to say that these practices shouldn’t be more widely adopted. Reducing your meat consumption is a powerful way to minimize your personal carbon footprint, buying secondhand clothes prevents material waste and is more ethical, and everyone should be doing their part to produce less waste (I like the 5R strategy of refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot).
Systems need to change, and changing consumer preferences are the key spark. While many advocates for a plastic straw ban say that it is just the first step in a greater push to ban plastics, some worry that targeting the low hanging fruit may lead to a sense of “moral license” to not take any further action. Furthermore, beware the “eco-influencer” who advocates for buying something new first instead of reusing something you already own! The trap of conspicuous non-consumption rears its ugly head in the worst corners of the environmentalism movement. It distracts from the real task at hand – mobilizing the masses towards actual change. Real change requires a lot more than opting for a paper straw, it’s demanding government action, drastically reducing our consumption of single-use plastics, and making an effort to get educated and not fall for corporate greenwashing. Do it for the turtles.
Study about the amount of plastic in the oceans:
More about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch:
The negative effects of plastics in our oceans
Surprising items that contain plastic:
Countries that have moved to ban single use plastics
The federal government’s commitment to ban single use plastics by 2021
Fear not! The zero waste movement, when explained correctly, is quite accessible for the average person
Some great articles that served as the inspiration to this post