Banning straws have minimal impact on pollution management: So what is the recent fixation?
Thinking of every piece of disposable plastic each person uses in a day, adds up: packaging, food containers, bottles and cups. But within the past year, straws have been getting the brunt of bad press. Companies like Starbucks and Marriott have vowed to phase straws out in the next year or two, a number of area restaurants have already stopped using them and local lawmakers are grappling with the issue. But where did this fixation on straws originate?
At the beginning of 2019, Washington, D.C. began a ban on plastic straws and stirrers. Seattle made the change six months prior, with DC becoming the second major U.S. city to ban straws. According to D.C. officials, businesses have until July to make the transition to alternatives before fines kick in. But this is the second attempt to ban single-use plastic straws in DC after the confusion whether a 2014 law applied to straws.
The Sustainable Solid Waste Management Amendment Act of 2014 established requirements for the management of solid waste within D.C., and required a development plan to achieve 80% diversion from landfills and waste-to-energy and to annually report on progress towards this goal. Plastic straws were banned in the city four years ago, by this same legislation that also outlawed Styrofoam containers.
The law banned food service ware that cannot be recycled or composted, effective January 2017. The legislation specifically listed non-recyclable, non-compostable straws among the banned items. Back then, however, people weren’t talking about straws so much.
The concept of zero waste is not a new concept but has certainly become a popular trend among environmentalists and millennials alike. Essentially, the goal is to produce as little waste as possible by reducing the number of products used and then trashed in the process. The ideal is for no trash to be sent to landfills, incinerators, or the ocean. This concept has certainly kicked off among young environmentalists who carry around their reusable coffee cups and metal straws, many companies and even local governments, have integrated zero waste policies or transformed their waste management policies. And American University is no exception.
Following OSL’s suite, campus coffee shops such as The Davenport Coffee Lounge in the School of International Service and The Bridge Cafe in the Mary Graydon Center, are making efforts to use compostable products as well as straw-less.
Integrating a Mug Club into AU’s culture on campus, The Dav also announced it’s initiative to becoming strawless in the summer of 2018.
“I’ve been working at the Dav for a bit and [going strawless] just seemed to be something that students genuinely wanted,” said Roma Kaczmarkiewicz, a barista at The Davenport Coffee Lounge. “We’re a pretty environmentally friendly group of people in [The School of International Service] with our reusable silverware and portable mugs, but it seemed like it was time to take the next step.”
Another barista at The Dav, Preston Fausett, said the coffee shop went strawless to support the national movement that was going on.
“The Dav is really dedicated to making more environmentally friendly options for food, drinks, and other products available on campus,” Faussett said. “The move was well received from students and the hope is that it will push our campus as a whole to make moves towards more sustainable business practices.”
Integrating itself as a microcosm of the national conversation, AU became a reflection of the debate happening beyond its small community. In July 2018, an environmental advocacy group Ecocycle claimed that 500 million straws are used by Americans. This statistic was contested by market research firms, putting the figure between 170 million and 390 million per day. This calculates to 63 billion to 142 billion straws per year.
But the statistic continued to circulate steadily, accelerating this year as big businesses stopped using plastic straws. Scrutiny of the figure soon followed, particularly from publications with a libertarian or conservative bent, such as Reason magazine, National Review and Fox News.
“At such a politically active school like AU, it’s hard to not follow the trends of what’s going on, even on the environmental sustainability front,” said Mariana Egea, a student working in the Office of Sustainability at American University.
The annual trash cleanup of the Anacostia River led by volunteers resulted in a collection of more than 4,00 straws in mid-2018. This same cleanup collected 36 tons of trash and recyclables but the thousands of straws made up a tiny fraction of the total. These numbers sound high until comparing them to the amount of other trash polluting oceans and waterways.
“I would say often times in college that we’re setting these lifelong living habits so the more you can set yourself up for success to reduce your impact on the environment, the better off you’ll be to continue that life after college when leaving American University,” Hannah Debelius, Sustainability Manager in the Office of Sustainability at AU, said.
Even if straws disappear from cold beverages across the country, it may not make a big impression on plastic pollution. After all, in the case of Starbucks, straws are being replaced by a lid made of more plastic. That lid is recyclable, but the vast majority of plastic never actually makes it to a recycling bin: only 9 percent of all plastic is recycled, according to a study published in Science Advances.
Many local initiatives and organizations have emerged from this straw ban, especially in D.C.. One group, Our Last Straw, is a coalition of restaurants, bars, cafes, hotels, event venues, and organizations across the D.C. area led by Dan Simons and the Farmers Restaurant Group (Founding Farmers, Farmers & Distillers, and Farmers Fishers Bakers).
D.C. Department of Energy and Environment is now inspecting businesses for compliance and will issue a notice of violation to businesses that distribute plastic straws.
According to other reports, the D.C. ban is raising eyebrows because it targets churches and daycare centers, not just restaurants.
AU has tried it’s due diligence to minimize it’s waste production as well, according to Debelius.
“At AU we pride ourself on our sustainability methods and I think it’s great but ultimately it’s all of our responsibility to contribute to protecting the environment,” Debelius said.