by The Cowl Editor on October 31, 2019
by Joseph Kulesza ’22
The reusable straw revolution, a product of the fourth wave environmentalism movement, officially reached its terminal velocity when the coffee company Starbucks announced a campaign to eliminate plastic straws on a national scale in July of 2018, according to the New York Times. This decision by Starbucks has had a drastic effect on consumers’ attitudes towards these single use products.
The subsequent paradigm shift in consumers’ relationships with plastic straws has manifested itself in public outcry, websites, and various hashtags which are all part of a new movement that claims to be the sole agent expediting the demise of plastic straws in the name of saving the environment.
This highly publicized movement is seen by many as a crucial step in humanity’s attempt to reduce our impact on the natural world. But, when reduced to its intrinsic worth, much of what this movement stands for and claims to be is nothing more than a distraction from a superseding issue that is not nearly as convenient, vogue, or hashtagable to address.
Looking at this movement at face value, the reusable straw revolution appears to cause no harm. In fact, virtually everyone considers it to have a net positive effect on the environment.
Even with plastic straws comprising less than one percent of the waste stream, according to the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, with the efforts of the numerous hashtags, websites, and the awareness generated by the reusable straw movement as a whole, there is potentially one percent less plastic entering the oceans and surrounding environments than before. Who can argue with that?
Although this sounds only beneficial, the real issue with this movement arises when taking into consideration the impact that it has not just on the environment, but on the participant.
When a participant in the reusable straw revolution makes the decision to abstain from using a plastic straw, they believe that they have won points on their moral balance sheet.
This self-conceived high moral balance all too often leads companies and customers to assume that they have done their part already and do not have to do anymore.
The psychological bargaining that happens with all humans in these situations is a phenomenon known as moral licensing, and it is especially prevelant in the context of this environmental fad.
Considering that the impact of using a reusable straw is minimal in light of the issue of pollution as a whole, it starts to look as if this whole movement does not seem like everything it is made out to be.
Furthermore, this ancillary environmental movement and its publicity might actually be cannibalizing the issue it is purporting to solve, in that it distracts the public from other underlying issues associated with pollution that are more pressing in nature.
If any real progress is to be made in addressing the environmental issue of pollution, the plastic straw revolution needs to be seen as simply a starting point for further action.
So yes, your reusable straw will not end up in the stomach of a sea turtle, but the plastic packaging it came in might.
Trendy movements can be good, but only insofar as they result in additional progress rather than distraction from the issue they are proposing to solve.