In the past two years, the movement to save our planet got a new face: the simple plastic straw. A movement to ban the plastic tubes took off online after a video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose made its way around the various social media platforms. Since then, similar efforts to end the use of single-use plastic bags or styrofoam food containers followed suit, with many states, counties, and towns throughout the nation enacting laws banning the plastics. Yet in our media frenzy haze of using “#stopsucking” and sharing news stories on how Starbucks is switching from straws to plastic lids, we are missing the larger point. While plastic straws, bags, and containers do play a part in polluting our water and land, we cannot let them become the scapegoats that shroud the real and overwhelming contributions towards polluting the earth that large companies and other sources make.
The National Geographic reports that roughly 500 million straws are used in the U.S. every year and that 8.3 million of those straws end up littering the world’s beaches and coastlines. While that is an intimidating number, plastic straws account for only .025 percent of the 8 million metric tons of plastics that enter the ocean every year.
Additionally, straws account for only 3 percent of the total trash that finds its way onto beaches. The Ocean Conservancy’s 2017 Coastal Cleanup Report included a list of the most common types of trash found on beaches and higher on the list than straws were cigarettes in the number one spot, followed by plastic bottles, bottle caps, wrappers and bags.
Videos and photos of trash and plastics floating down rivers, clogging up beaches and polluting the ocean are problems easily visible to the public eye. But the most troubling contributors to our rapidly declining clean earth are hidden behind other movements. For example, only 100 companies make up the entire 71 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. These companies, including ExxonMobil, Shell and BP, dig up fossil fuels from the earth while heavily polluting and heating the atmosphere. The 2017 Carbon Majors Report found that if fossil fuels continue to be extracted at the same rate as they were between 1988 and 2017, then the global temperature will rise to four degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
The pollutants that these companies release into the air are absorbed back into the oceans. According to the Natural Resource Defense Council, our oceans absorb up to one-quarter of the man-made carbon emissions pumped into the air by fossil fuel companies. This is leading to ocean acidification, where the carbon levels of the ocean’s water are changed, and with it, the acidity levels, leaving marine species and ecosystems vulnerable.
The problem is that not everyone in the world lives near fossil fuel plants. The majority of people do see plastic straws and bags in their everyday lives, making it an easy target for people who want to do something about pollution. However, the problem with the ‘ban the straw’ movement is that for many, their efforts stop there.
Jim Leape, co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, was featured in an article published by Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences and spoke about how the straw banning movement grants a “moral license” to individuals and companies. They then use this “moral license,” granted by themselves after participating in the movement to end straw use, to stop any further efforts to change global pollution.
The “moral license” effect is similar to the “spillover” effect discussed by Heather Truelove, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Florida, in a 2018 Vox article. The “spillover” effect connects to whether individuals decide to continue or stop acting on a social issue they participate in. In terms of the plastic straw ban, a positive spillover might include an individual deciding to stop using all single-use products, but a negative spillover could include individuals using the “I didn’t use a straw today” excuse to take a longer than normal shower or to pat themselves on the back and rid themselves of any further responsibility.
We cannot let movements that have good intentions at their core continue to allow individuals and companies to pat themselves on the back and move on. We must continue to demand more, to look past the plastic straw videos and hashtags online and see how the main contributors to global warming and pollution are companies that have become too powerful and destructive.
Plastic straws have become the face of a movement, but they are just that: a face. The rest of the body, where the true problems lie, need to receive as much attention as the efforts to end the use of plastic straws and bags. If you decide to not use a plastic straw, go ahead and pat yourself on the back. Just remember that your efforts could also be used in lobbying politicians to support climate change bills, boycotting companies that refuse to consider sustainable efforts, and drawing attention to the issues larger than plastic tubes.