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A little more care is needed before we #stopsucking on straws

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Stop sucking — that’s the slogan of the newest environmental movement, eliminating the use of plastic straws. The United Kingdom and Taiwan both intend to ban plastic straws within the next decade, while stateside cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Miami Beach have already passed legislation to ban them. Locally, Manhattan Beach banned dispensing plastic straws in bars and restaurants in April.

While I do admire the intentions of these recent bans, a little perspective and prudence should be shown before we declare all-out war on plastic straws.

Reducing our plastic waste total is certainly pivotal to protecting our planet, especially with plastic consumption being out of control: in 2014 alone, Americans threw away over 33 million tons of plastic, most of which was not recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

But plastic straws are merely a symptom of our reckless consumer choices. They make up a tiny fraction — 0.03 percent, as estimated by Bloomberg News — of the total mass of plastic waste, globally.

Proponents of the bans argue that focusing on doing away with plastic straws will lead to a decreased use of other plastic items. But why depend on straws to act as some kind of gateway item? Why bank on the chances that consumers will suddenly transform their lifestyle choices because Starbucks baristas won’t stick a plastic straw in their frappuccino anymore?

But anti-plastic straw activists should admit that a complete ban of plastic straws would be a cruel and uncaring act of environmentalism. Some people with significant disability depend on bendable plastic straws to drink independently. For people with Parkinson’s, alternatives like metal and bamboo straws can cause injuries because the materials are too strong. Additionally, because these people can take longer to drink, paper straws can serve as a choking hazard considering they deteriorate and become soggy, unlike plastic.

While there is a very real and concerning human side of the issue, there is also an economic one.

Paper and compostable plastic straws, which generally cost between seven to 20 cents per piece, are considerably more expensive than single-use plastic straws, which only cost one to three cents per piece. The economic effect is large when taken into account the amount of straws stores dispense; in San Francisco, businesses hand out more than two million straws annually,according to the San Francisco Chronicle. This adds up to $340,000 more spent each year on straws.

And who can forget the poor boba shop owners? The wide straws that are needed to suck up the tapioca pearls are scarcely produced in alternative materials, and even when they are, the legislation passed may prohibit them (such is the case for boba shop owners in San Francisco, which has banned both plastic and the corn-based polylactic acid straws).

To the delight of anti-plastic straw activists, major corporations, including McDonald’s and Starbucks, have committed themselves to phasing out plastic straws within the next several years.

While mega corporations can afford to switch to more environmentally-friendly alternatives, it is unfair for local governments to force small business owners to make the switch away from cheap plastic straws. Phasing out plastic straws should be an environmental choice, not a regulation; it should be a decision made out of conscience or brand awareness or at the very least, as a result of consumer demands.

The pop artist Andy Warhol once said, “I love plastic. I want to be plastic.” While I doubt we consumers wish to be plastic, our straws better be.

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Sip on this