Skip to navigationSkip to content

Plastic straws are the new plastic bags

AP/IPX/MediaPunch/Jon Misa
Not chic, Vanessa Hudgens.
By Jenni Avins
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Here in Los Angeles, certain Starbucks locations are hunting grounds for paparazzi in search of the perfect shot of an artfully rumpled famous person enjoying an iced matcha in yoga attire. (Celebrities—they’re just like us!) At the intersection of that celebrity and their beverage of choice? A plastic straw.

Long a default offering in restaurants and takeout joints, plastic straws have of late become antennae for the ire of environmentalists, like plastic bags before them. And rightfully so. The Ocean Conservancy’s 2017 International Coastal Cleanup Report (pdf), which contains data from cleanup efforts in 112 countries, found plastic straws to be consistently in the top 10 discarded items, contributing to some 18 million pounds (8 million kg) of ocean trash collected. If the data alone doesn’t inspire you to give up straws, an excruciating story and video of a sea turtle with a four-inch (10 cm) straw stuck in its nostril might.

“The animal looked like it was having some trouble breathing, since the straw took up an entire nostril,” National Geographic reported. “The sea turtle expert thinks [the turtle] could have swallowed the straw at some point, gagged on it, and then tried to throw it back up.”

Like the plastic bag, the straw is swiftly becoming a symbol for the toxic and persistent scourge of single-use plastic, and an everyday item that can be eliminated to reduce its use. Organizations such as the Surfrider Foundation, the Plastic Pollution Coalition, and the Ocean Conservancy are all campaigning to get concerned citizens—and the restaurants that serve them—to skip plastic straws entirely.

Some companies and municipalities are taking note. On Monday (May 21), Alaska Airlines announced it would replace plastic stir straws and citrus picks with “sustainable, marine-friendly alternatives” on all its flights and in lounges. (Fun fact: This change came after the urging of a 16-year-old Girl Scout named Shelby O’Neil.) A day later, New York City councilman Rafael L. Espinal Jr. introduced a bill to outlaw plastic straws in the city’s restaurants.

“It’s important for New Yorkers to understand that the plastic straw is not a necessity; it’s more of a luxury, and our luxury is causing great harm to other environments,” Espinal told the New York Times (paywall). “Plastic isn’t the only type of straw available. There are paper straws, aluminum straws, and bamboo straws that are much safer for our environment, to name just a few.” (There really are an abundance of straw options. This reusable stainless steel set even comes with cleaning brushes!)

At Starbucks, change is coming slowly, and city by city. In July, the company’s hometown of Seattle will enact a ban on plastic straws. And as of June 1, Starbucks’ Malibu Country Mart location (in one of the toniest strip malls in America) will will have to comply with a citywide ban on restaurants offering plastic straws or utensils. A Malibu Starbucks employee told Quartz that he expected alternative straws to arrive at the store next week.

“I have no idea what the style [of the straws] is,” he said. “Or if it’s something that’s going to be strictly for Starbucks.”

Fortunately, the cause has its own celebrity champion. In March, actor and environmentalist Adrian Grenier addressed Starbucks shareholders about the company’s environmental policies. He also launched a Twitter campaign directed at the company: #stopsucking.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.