There has been a big push in environmental circles to ban single-use plastic straws. Seattle became the first city to ban them last year. Santa Barbara recently banned plastic straws from being offered without request and San Francisco just voted to join the movement.
Ostensibly, the reason for this is that plastic straws are contributing to the problem of ocean plastic. However, even supporters of the ban have admitted that the case for saving the oceans by banning straws is massively overstated. As Vox’s Radhika Viswanathan writes:
The Ocean Conservancy’s 2017 Coastal Cleanup Report compiled beach cleanups around the world and found that the most common trash item found on beaches is cigarettes, followed by plastic bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, and bags. Straws and stirrers placed seventh on the list, at about 3 percent of the total trash. Bloomberg News estimates that on a global scale, straws would probably only account for 0.03 percent of total plastic waste by mass. Another study found that an estimated 46 percent of the debris in the ocean is abandoned fishing equipment.
There’s more. Most of the ocean plastic is coming not from the developed world but from the developing world. The majority of ocean plastic comes from five countries: China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. In fact 86% of the ocean plastic comes from Asia, with only about 1% coming from North America and Europe. If ocean plastic is a problem, addressing it through straw bans is like losing weight by asking McDonald’s to hold the pickles.
So why has the straw ban suddenly become the environmental cause? Why are celebrities like Neil deGrasse Tyson lending their weight to this crusade? Well, it goes back to that concept of “raising awareness”. Viswanathan again:
Several environmental organizations have made straw bans a priority lately — raising awareness, nudging celebrities to come out in favor of them, lobbying cities and states to enact them. But some advocates told me their deeper motivation is to build support and awareness for the need to ban other plastic products that are more significant sources of plastic solution than straws.
“Our straw campaign is not really about straws,” said Dune Ives, the executive director of Lonely Whale, the organization that led the straw ban movement in Seattle. “It’s about pointing out how prevalent single-use plastics are in our lives, putting up a mirror to hold us accountable. We’ve all been asleep at the wheel.”
This crosses me, to be blunt, as counter-productive hokum.
“Raising awareness” is a big thing these days. We are constantly bombarded with awareness-raising campaigns on cancer, human trafficking, heart disease, dementia and the imbecility that was Scrappy Doo. But the effectiveness of awareness-raising campaigns is … dubious. It’s very dubious.
But the funny part about all of this awareness-raising is that it doesn’t accomplish all that much. The underlying assumption of so many attempts to influence people’s behavior — that they make bad choices because they lack the information to empower them to do otherwise — is, except in a few cases, false. And what’s worse, awareness-raising done in the wrong way can actually backfire, encouraging the negative activities in question. One of the favorite pastimes of a certain brand of concerned progressive, then, may be much more effective at making them feel good about themselves than actually improving the world in any substantive way.
Singal singles out the 1980s anti-drug campaigns which raised plenty of awareness but had little actual effect on drug use (although plenty of effect on teenage crushes on Rachael Leigh Cook). And the last few decades have been rife with other awareness campaigns — on obesity, alcohol use, bullying, etc. — that seem to have little impact on the problem other than raising awareness of it. Raising awareness of a problem is nice, I guess, but solving a problem crosses me as a better use of resources. And the most effective “awareness raising” campaigns tend to be those that are paired with more concrete actions — pigovian taxes on cigarettes, for example.
Now the usual response is, “Well what harm can raising awareness do?” Here’s the harm: the public’s attention span is limited. Resources to deal with problems are limited. Manpower and money are limited. By focusing those resources on a feel-good issue like straws, we pull resources away from much more important efforts that face much greater obstacles. So, in this case, we invest massive effort, celebrity clout and political capital into … removing a tiny fraction of ocean plastic. By contrast, a campaign focused on fishing gear would have literally a thousand times the impact.
In fact, there are real reasons to believe that awareness-raising campaigns can actually make problems worse. By making people think they’ve actually done something about a problem just by raising awareness, they can obviate the need to… actually do something about the problem. They give people the impression that issues are fun and easy to solve. So much more complex and intractable problems — like getting developing countries to crack down on plastic waste — seem impossible by comparison.
A few weeks ago, a few of the authors got into a Twitter discussion about what exactly was meant by “virtue signaling”. This was my answer:
It’s an overused term but I would say it’s when someone is more interested in showing they care about a problem then solving it, e.g. male lawyers in Chicago who walked to work in heels to protest sexism by aren’t actually doing anything about it.
— Space Force Computer (@Hal_RTFLC) July 6, 2018
This is an example of virtue signaling. Supporting plastic straw bans — especially for celebrities — makes it look like you care about the environment. And when it’s pointed out that it doesn’t actually do much, we fall back on the “raising awareness” cheat. But what exactly are we raising awareness of? That we have an ocean plastic problem? This has been well-known for a while. If the plastic straw ban is educating anyone, it’s educating them badly by giving them the impression that straws are a significant part of the problem and that all they have to do to save the Earth is forego one (or use a more expensive, much less useful one).
A Sense of Proportion
The environmental movement has had a very serious issue for a very long time with having a sense of proportion about the various issues facing the planet. The movement tends to get focused on bright shiny objects instead of a rigorous scientific approach and the tradeoffs encapsulated therein. Earth Hour, for example, is very popular but may actually increase greenhouse gas emissions as energy demand cycles down and then up again. Food miles, a big fad a few years ago, turned out to increase energy consumption. Carbon credits, which always crossed me as the modern equivalent of plenary indulgences, have been rife with fraud and their impact is questionable at best.
Carl Sagan used to call this “brick in the toilet” activism after an 80’s fad of people putting bricks in their toilet tanks to cut down on the amount of water used when flushing. It made people feel good but it didn’t noticeably change water consumption patterns. The invention of low-flow toilets that actually worked and mandates to install them accomplished that.
A campaign of getting Pacific rim countries to control their fishing gear may not have the same sexiness as a straw ban. But that’s precisely why it should be the focus of our efforts. Every ounce of energy we spend banning straws is an ounce we’re not spending on the far greater and far more intractable problems that are actually creating the ocean plastic problem.
Look, I’m not totally against this. I don’t use plastic straws and I have become increasingly concerned with the amount of single-use plastic in my life. Even it weren’t for the environmental concerns — and it mostly isn’t, since we have no shortage of landfill space — I don’t like the waste. Throwing out things galls me no end.
But that’s a personal preference. In the end, we have to put our pet issues aside and consider things more objectively. And objectively, straws are a really tiny concern compared to the much graver issues facing our world. We have countries shutting down nuclear power plants and replacing them with fossil fuels under the mistaken belief that a bit of alternative energy balances it out. We have areas banning hydrofracking, which mainly results in energy coming from much more carbon-intense coal. We still have no practical scalable technological solution to storing and dispensing energy from variable alternative sources, resulting in a duck curve on energy use that, combined with the closing of nuclear plants, is increasing greenhouse gas emissions. And yes, we have a problem with ocean plastic, mainly caused by developing countries treating rivers and shorelines like garbage dumps.
These are hard problems to solve. They involve tradeoffs, compromise, technological innovation, political maneuvering and relentless effort for tiny gains. The straw ban isn’t the problem; the idea that the straw ban is some kind of bridge to solving bigger problems is. Because straw bans are easy; effecting real change is hard.