Over the last few months, plastic drinking straws have become a focal point for environmentalists, celebrities, consumers, and the corporate board members who wish to appease them. (And ostensibly, to shrink the environmental footprints of their businesses.) The disposable plastic straw has become, in a sense, the new plastic bag: a handy symbol for the toxic and persistent scourge of single-use plastic, and an everyday item that can be easily eliminated from use. In the US, cities such as Seattle and Malibu have already banned them, and today Starbucks announced it would phase them out from its stores by 2020.
But of course, every trend brings a backlash. The earnest support of celebrities like Adrian Grenier and announcements from mega-corporations such as Starbucks (with more undoubtedly to follow), is met with a healthy dose of public skepticism: What about Starbucks’ plastic lids and cups? Why plastic straws when they only make up a minuscule percentage of ocean trash—the purported reason for banning them? And what about, I don’t know, replacing cars that burn fossil fuels or ocean-polluting polyester clothes with cleaner options, instead of worrying about our very useful Frappuccino straws?
One argument says that conscious consumption—the act of spending money in accordance with one’s ethical values—can even stall the very efforts consumers hope to support: “We pat ourselves on the back for making decisions that hush our social guilt instead of placing that same effort in actions that enact real environmental change,” wrote Alden Wicker in 2017:
On its face, conscious consumerism is a morally righteous, bold movement. But it’s actually taking away our power as citizens. It drains our bank accounts and our political will, diverts our attention away from the true powerbrokers, and focuses our energy instead on petty corporate scandals and fights over the moral superiority of vegans.
The conversation about plastic straws seems exactly the sort of distracting petty fight that Wicker refers to. But the danger of the whataboutism-style backlash that follows is that it fosters throwing up one’s hands in total apathy. Really, why not just drive your SUV to the Keurig store, fill it with plastic bags full of those coffee pods, and drive it over sea-turtle nests into the ocean? (Try not to hit a whale.)
Because there’s reason to believe that incremental changes can help create more meaningful ones (not to mention compound). A plastic straw—however symbolic—can lead to conversations about larger looming issues, including the acidification of our oceans, or more significant sources of ocean trash, such as waste from the commercial fishing industry and poor waste management in Asia.
“Banning straws is about as important as spitting in the wind,” psychologist Robert Gifford told The Grist’s Shannon Osaka. “But a lot of social psychology research says that if you get people to say yes to a small request, they are more likely to accede to more serious requests.”
Wicker proposes meaningful alternatives to “voting with your dollar,” including contributing to political campaigns that align with your values, calling representatives, and volunteering with local organizations.
If consumers fail to take these sorts of actions, it won’t be because they were served a drink without a plastic straw.