Straw Bans Won't Fix the Plastic Problem, but Something Else Can

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What's really needed is a shift in American food culture.

Straw bans have gained impressive momentum over the past year. From Seattle pledging to ban straws in the city by 2020, Disney saying it would eliminate plastic straws and stirrers by next year, and San Francisco saying no even to bioplastic straws, to Starbucks remodelling its cups so as not to require a straw and Alaska Airlines removing them from food service, it's a big trend right now, aided by catchy hashtags like #stopsucking.

Lonely Whale is the group that pushed for Seattle's straw ban. Like many others in the environmental activism sphere, it views straws as a 'gateway plastic'. In other words, once people realize how easy it is to stop using straws, they will be motivated to eliminate other single-use plastics from their lives. Lonely Whale's executive director, Dune Ives, told Vox,

“Our straw campaign is not really about straws. 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 how realistic is it that all the disposable plastics could be replaced with non-plastic alternatives? Think about it for a moment. Plastic-lined juice boxes and takeout coffee cups, sushi boxes and other take-home food containers, Styrofoam soup cups with lids, disposable cutlery, either loose or bundled with a paper napkin in a thin plastic bag, condiment sachets, bottled beverages, any packaged food you eat on the go, like hummus and crackers and pre-cut fruit or vegetables -- these are just a few of the plastic items people use on a regular basis. To get the plastic out of these things would be a monumental, and quite frankly, unrealistic, task.

What needs to change instead is American eating culture, which is the real driving force behind this excessive waste. When so many people eat on the go and replace sit-down meals with portable snacks, it's no wonder we have a packaging waste catastrophe. When food is purchased outside the home, it requires packaging in order to be clean and safe for consumption, but if you prepare it at home and eat it on a plate, you reduce the need for packaging.

In an article for Huffington Post, titled, "We Can Ban Plastic Straws, But America’s Eating Habits Are The Real Problem," Alana Dao condemns a culture of 'busyness', which is infiltrating all levels of the food industry:

"[This] has given way to the fast-casual restaurant, which often includes a steady stream of takeout packaging. They offer a fast-food approach by serving food in takeout packaging, whether the customer is dining in or not. This creates an environmental packaging nightmare for the sake of convenience and quick service."

This doesn't happen as much in other countries, where eating away from a table is frowned upon. In Japan, it is considered uncultured and unhygienic. In Italy, mealtime is sacred and life revolves around the hours when one sits down to a meal. The city of Florence recently banned people from eating in the street, a controversial move attributed to rude people "needing to be better managed." Dao quotes Emilie Johnson, an American raising her daughters in France:

“Food is not a casual event. Even a snack for children is formalized. There is the proper time to set up the meal, to sit together and to partake. Ritual is a form of respect to the food itself.”

I realize that both options here seem formidable, whether it's transitioning all disposable packaging to biodegradable, compostable, reusable alternatives, or altering an entire nation's mindset toward food. But the former, though it would be a major improvement over the status quo, is only a Band-Aid solution. It still requires vast consumption of resources, energy required to process into a usable product, waste collection services, and recycling (which we know doesn't work) or industrial-scale composting (also energy intensive).

family dinner

© K Martinko -- The prioritization of at-home family dinners could go a long way toward fighting plastic packaging waste.

A mental shift, on the other hand, has benefits that far outweigh the reduction in waste. Refusing to succumb to busyness and replacing that with slower, more mindful food consumption is conducive to better health (less weight gain, improved digestion, healthier home cooked meals), a calmer mental state, time spent together as a family, and money saved, not to mention cleaner streets and cars and less trash to take out each week.

It's idealistic, yes, but not impossible. It's how we used to eat and how other cultures continue to eat because they know how important it is. We can make this happen by talking to schools to change cafeteria culture, by not signing kids up for extracurricular activities that make it impossible to cook and eat dinner at home, by incorporating cooking time into one's weekend or daily routine, by teaching kids not to be picky, by packing lunches at home and making a point of eating away from one's desk. It's time we made American food culture something to be proud of, rather than a source of national shame, and if plastic straws can be the galvanizing force for such a transition, then so be it.