Why plastic straws should be taxed

A small charge has helped people move away from plastic shopping bags, so why not the same approach for straws?

When waste disposal and recycling companies start speaking out about plastic straw pollution, then you know it’s a really serious problem. These companies are the only ones who could possibly benefit from excess plastic waste, but with straws, there’s no way to recycle them. Straws are used in enormous quantities (500 million a day in the United States) and all of these go to landfill, lingering for decades, probably centuries, without biodegrading.

A British company called Business Waste wants people to start treating straws the same way as single-use plastic bags. It is calling for a 5-pence tax on plastic straws to discourage their use. This proposal would go a long way toward the ultimate goal of phasing out plastic drinking straws within the next few years, something that Business Waste spokesman Mark Hall says is “an ambitious timescale, but one that is certainly achievable.”

“A plastic straw has a lifespan of around 20 minutes, and then it’s thrown away. With the finest minds in the world at our disposal, why is this dreadful state of affairs even a thing? We don’t need to invent anything new. We don’t need to invest money in more advanced products. We just need to change our way of thinking.”

What would that change of thinking look like? There are two immediate answers:

Your lips!

Get over the fact that you need a straw to sip a drink. You don’t. Your lips can do a perfectly decent job. As Hall says, “Face the facts, you’re not eight years old. Only kids need a straw with their fizzy pop. Why on Earth do you need a straw in your G&T?”

Paper straws!

Paper straws do the job just as well as plastic, except they’re biodegradable. They won’t stay around forever, leaching chemicals into the ground or being ingested by animals. The only tiny problem with paper straws is that they swell if left in a drink for a long time, but this just means you have an excuse to down your vodka-soda faster than ever.

plastic straw waste© One Less Straw campaign (via Facebook) -- Plastic straws collected during beach clean-up

Freehold is a bar in Brooklyn, NY, that gave up plastic straws. In a short video for Now This, a bartender explained how weird it felt to stop putting straws in drinks: “A straw was this thing that you always did. It’s like muscle memory. You put this in the drink and you give it to your guest.” He said they worried about the guests, too, who might not know what to do with a drink without a straw. The transition was smooth, and now Freehold avoids sending 1.5 million straws to landfill each year. Guests can grab a paper straw if they’re desperate.

Public awareness campaigns are needed, as many people are still oblivious to the problems with straws. When I requested no straws for my family’s glasses of water at a restaurant last week, the server asked why, saying she’d never heard such a request. She seemed baffled by my explanation.

The tax is a smart suggestion, since nothing inspires behavioral change faster than money. At the very least, it would raise questions, lead to conversations, and get people thinking about something that's almost too common and normal to notice.

Tags: Plastics | Pollution

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