You've heard about gateway drugs. In the debate over banning disposable straws, there are now “gateway plastics.”
That's how some environmentalists and government leaders pushing bans on plastic straws describe them, as a way to prompt bigger questions about use, or misuse, of disposable plastics.
They see straws as a problem on their own — they're consistently among Ocean Conservancy's top 10 items of beach litter — but their constant presence sticking out of your drink gives them a bigger symbolic value.
“We've always known that the plastic straw is a gateway plastic for a broader conversation on single-use plastics,” said Dune Ives, executive director of the Lonely Whale Foundation, which spearheaded a “Strawless in Seattle” campaign and is working in other cities. “It's not about the straw entirely. It's about how we see single-use plastics in our lives.”
Whatever its role, gateway or not, the humble polymer straw has been getting a lot of attention.
On July 1, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban plastic straws and cutlery, and recent weeks have seen announcements from major restaurants and hotel chains.
Starbucks, for example, announced July 9 it was eliminating plastic straws in its 28,000 locations by 2020, Marriott said July 18 it was phasing out disposable plastic straws by July 2019, and McDonald's is getting rid of them in the United Kingdom and Ireland and testing alternatives in the United States.
Governments, too, are active. The European Union and Taiwan in recent months have proposed bans on plastic straws and cutlery as part of restrictions on the most common single-use plastic items found in ocean litter.
Closer to home, New York City and San Francisco are considering bans. Hawaii's Legislature rejected a ban this year, while California's state Assembly passed a relatively mild plastic straw law May 30 that requires full-service restaurants — but not fast food cafes — to give out straws only upon request.
“It's critical that we reduce the negative effects of plastic pollution,” said Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon, who noted plastic straws are the sixth most common item collected in California beach cleanups and that studies are finding microscopic bits of plastic marine litter inside fish sold in the state's markets.
“By removing the default behavior of providing straws with every drink, consumers have an opportunity to make a deliberate, small change,” said Calderon, a Democrat who added that he wants to pursue stricter straw legislation. “It's a small but significant step forward.”