The Missing Piece of the Plastic Debate

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Something my friend told me the other day made me rethink the plastic straw debate.

I'm working at a cafe right now, and there's a little sign by the utensils:

plastic sign about straws

© Ilana StraussAh yes, the plastic straw movement. You've probably heard that everyone has suddenly realized plastic straws create problematic waste, and businesses are nobly getting rid of them, or at least asking customers to use them less.

Everyone's right, of course. Plastic straws do create harmful waste — 46,400 school buses worth a year in the U.S. alone. But something that's been on my mind a lot, and the mind of other environmentalists, are that this fascination with plastic straws in particular feels a little random. Plastic straws account less than 1 percent of the plastic waste in the ocean. Banning them is a nice gesture, not a real solution to the problem.

After all, think about all the paper to-go cups, the paper napkins, the plastic cup tops, the foam containers, the plastic utensils, the paper bags. Even the people running the plastic straw campaigns understand this.

“Our straw campaign is not really about straws,” explained Dune Ives, who helped lead the campaign 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.”

But who am I to lecture? I'll admit it: I buy coffee and other food to go. Sometimes I'll be busy and need to grab a coffee or lunch on between bus transfers. In fact, my friend noticed when I came in the room wielding a Starbucks to-go cup the other day.

"We don't have those in my village in India," she told me. "Nobody drinks anything to go there. If you order something, you sit down and enjoy it."

It hit me: I traveled to Morocco last year, and it was the same story. People in the little village where I was spent hours chatting with friends at cafes, sipping tea out of glass cups. In fact, I don't remember seeing a single foam container or plastic fork while I was there.

When it comes to food utensil waste, maybe the solution has nothing to do with banning individual products or guilting ourselves for being too greedy. Maybe our fast lifestyles are the problem. When people are always on the run, they'll keep buying disposable products.

Instead of making sustainability all about "giving up" things, it might be more effective — and relaxing — to focus on giving ourselves back the most valuable gift of all: time.

But it's not so simple, is it? Lots of people don't have lifestyles that allow them to take an hour and really enjoy that cup of coffee. Individuals might be able to carve out some space here and there, but a societal shift is what's needed. If we ever want to get rid of plastic waste, we need to change what's normal. We need to turn our society into a place where time for enjoying our food isn't a luxury; it's an expectation.