|Wow, talk about a straw man argument!|
I’ve seen little move faster than the Great Plastic Straw Meltdown of 2018, except perhaps the backlash against it. Plastic straws are toxic, non-biodegradable, and contribute to clogging our oceans with continent-sized islands of trash; but the disabled, stroke survivors, and the elderly need straws to swallow liquids. Whose goals are served by each side? Why are they so strident? And are they both missing the biggest question?
The outrage around plastic straws assumes you, personally, eschewing your disposable sissy stick with fast food, can halt the planet’s mounting collapse. Really? Seven billion people, many of them creating trash every day, and you expect me to believe one simple habit change can fix the problem? Of course not. Because the problem isn’t one throwaway product, it’s a massive throwaway culture. My straw habits barely make a dent.
To even reach the restaurant where my disposable straw becomes an issue, I must drive my carbon-burning car across roads paved in carbon-emitting concrete. I must travel from one air-conditioned environment to another, often idling at red lights and other traffic controls. God knows how far my beverage was shipped before my straw came anywhere near it; colas require ingredients imported from Africa in diesel-burning container ships.
Our economy is premised on an assumption of limitless inexpensive goods, services, and energy. We expect food to be fast and cheap, cars to be as attractive as they are speedy, and houses to have autumn-like comfort even in bitter winters and scalding summers. We burn lights all night, heat water we never use, and live unbelievable distances from our jobs. And we discard unbelievable quantities of domestic refuse.
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Some of this waste is manifestly harmful. The United States Gypsum Corporation, America’s largest drywall manufacturer, warns builders to return unused scraps of product to them for recycling, because if that stuff gets landfilled, it can acidify groundwater. Yet I’ve witnessed how this almost never happens. Drywall leftovers go straight into the dumpster, because saving and returning it is costly and time-consuming, and cost efficiency triumphs over all.
I prevent some of this waste by grabbing packing pallets that would otherwise get landfilled, and rebuilding them into rustic furniture as a hobby. I’m proud of how my skills at furniture-building have progressed in recent months. But as an individual, I can only redirect limited amounts of product from the dumpster. I’ve watched perfectly good structural wood get landfilled because I couldn’t possibly take, store, and use any more.
hus my problem with the “individual responsibility” model inherent in the plastic straw debate. My individual decision to not take a swizzle stick cannot possibly make enough difference, amid all the waste generated by our system, in the trash going into our landfills, waterways, and oceans. No matter how solemn my intentions, I can’t do enough to really change the trajectory of an economic structure that demands cheap, disposable stuff.
Whether you use or refuse plastic straws is a distraction, plain and simple. Though I haven’t tracked the controversy to its source, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover industry front groups have pushed this low-grade moral panic on America’s buying public to make them feel personally responsible, deflecting attention from the system that profits whenever we throw stuff away. Rampton and Stauber write extensively about how this distraction motivation works.
I don’t want to disparage the impulse to do right in our consumption habits. But the “ethical consumption” model pushed in the anti-straw argument essentially standardizes the idea that the market environment simply exists, and isn’t created by laws, practices, and traditions. It exonerates manufacturers who create massive waste in generating our cheap stuff. And it offloads responsibility for ethical choices onto individuals who, by definition, cannot do enough.
By all means, if it’s within your power, refuse the plastic straw. Something is better than nothing. But don’t think, because you’ve skipped the straw, you’ve done your part. Use that as a launching point to transform, not just yourself, but your relationship with a system dependent on massive human indifference. And don’t get distracted by those who want you to think you’ve done enough.