Prying plastic straws from our cold, dead hands

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plastic straws, girl in red shorts with soft drink

When we would go out to lunch with my in-laws, the children were fond of passing Grandpa plastic straws for his beverage. They loved the way he would scowl and say, “I don’t need that. I been weaned,” drawing out the last word a little longer than necessary. Grandma would take the unopened straws and stash them in her heavy purse, along with the many others she had gathered from restaurant tables over the decades.

“You never know when you might need one,” she always said.

Grandpa died several years ago, but he might approve of the latest movement to save the planet: banning plastic straws.

No plastic straws here

My husband and I first became aware of this trend when we stopped for dinner one night at our favorite pub. Charlie the bartender placed our drinks on the counter and slid two wrapped straws toward us.

“Don’t use ‘em if you don’t need ‘em,” he warned.

And he was right. They were paper, and with every sip of my beverage, I felt my straw getting softer and softer in my mouth. I wished I had not been so quick to scoff at my mother-in-law’s prophecy that one day I might need a plastic straw. I removed the paper straw and drank from the glass. I had been weaned.

While traveling through D.C., my daughter messaged me about the paper straw she was using at a fast food restaurant. Frantically drinking her beverage before the straw dissolved into it, she recognized the hypocrisy in it:

“Nothing about this place is good for any living thing on the planet! Just give me a #@*% plastic straw!”

Getting the point

Having inherited my father’s skepticism, I am not one to jump on any bandwagon without doing my own research. So I looked for opposing viewpoints on the plastic straw issue. Here is what I discovered:

  • We use 500 million plastic straws a day in the US, according to the Plastic Pollution Coalition.
  • The New York Times claims that a nine-year-old boy made up that statistic. But the number is still in the hundred-millions.
  • The Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions says the oceans carry over 150 million metric tons of plastic. About one percent of this is straws.
  • Any statistics about the number of plastic straws we use probably does not include the significant percentage at the bottoms of old ladies’ purses.

The first time I used a paper straw was also the moment I realized plastic straws, and plastic in general, are destroying our oceans. It had never occurred to me to consider what happened to my straw when I threw it away after its one use. Even if the statistics seem skewed and the impact of my straw on the well-being of the ocean is minimal, sucking on a paper straw got my attention. And that’s the point.

So how do you feel about it?

Have you given up your plastic straws yet, even if your favorite restaurant still offers them? Not everyone can get behind this movement. Apparently, people with disabilities are unhappy with the replacement of their plastic straws. Paper straws present a choking hazard, and most reusable straw material places those with disabilities at risk of injury. So it is possible that the plastic straw ban will not last unless someone finds a reasonable alternative. If that is the case and the bans begin to lift, will you revert to plastic straws again?

Scotland recently banned cotton swabs—you know, Q-Tips—unless they have paper sticks. Seems like an even less effective crusade than the one against straws. But Pope Francis, in his encyclical, Laudato Si, reminds us that we have a responsibility to care for the earth, which is a gift from God. Every little bit helps.

I’ve never been a crusader for environmental issues, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about the planet. I recycle, conserve electricity, and never throw trash out the car window. But I don’t really make many conscious choices to do my small part, my one percent for the environment. Weaning myself from plastic straws might be a good first step.

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