Rant: Plastic Straws Were Never the Problem (But These Just Might Be)

Metal straws? Big whoop. We've got bigger fish to fry.

plastic straws were never the problem
Credit: Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

OK, fam. It’s time for an uncomfortable opinion. You know that metal straw you’ve been proudly toting around for a few years to use in place of disposable plastic? It’s a little bit cringey.

Wait! Don’t run away.

Here’s the tea: the plastic straw issue is such a small piece of the environmental puzzle. Of the 35 million tons of plastic pollution around the world, straws make up just four percent. So why did we focus so much on them?


No, really. Because eradicating them is simple. For most of us.

Think about it. Once we started eschewing plastic straws, the transition became easy. We all started carting around metal straws or refusing straws entirely, putting blinders on to the fact that a) this alternative is only simple for the able-bodied and housed among us and b) that carrying our little straws around like a security blanket makes us feel like we’re doing our part, when the reality is that there are so many more things we could be, should be doing that are a whole lot harder to adapt to than a pretty metal straw in our handbags.

We’re not saying plastic straws are great for the planet, of course. According to data from Australian scientists Denise Hardesty and Chris Wilcox, there are nearly 7.5 million plastic straws lying on America’s shorelines alone. But other single-use plastics are just as bad. And so, for that matter, are a lot of other items omnipresent in many of our homes.

“While it’s by all means great that many societies have decided to get rid of plastic straws or outright ban them, they are not nearly as damaging for the environment as, say, plastic bags or drink bottles are,” says Silvia Borges, founder of Enviromom.com. “Why choose to get rid of them and not, say, water bottles? Because it was easy enough to do, not taking much personal sacrifice from me and you as consumers.”

And while removing single-use plastics is great, the replacements have been found wanting. To wit: paper straws, which have been found to be coated with PFAS, aka endocrine-disrupting forever chemicals.

“Plastic straws do contribute to plastic pollution, however, they are safer and their single-use makes them more hygienic than the metal straw alternative, which carries the risk of puncture and can also be difficult to clean,” explains Yolanda Whyte, MD, noting that our plastic reduction efforts would be better focused on plastic bags, packaging, or face masks.

And that’s not all. Ready for uncomfortable?

If you were gung-ho about the plastic straw ban, here are some other things we’d recommend cutting out of your daily life. They might not be as easy to eschew, and it might not be as trendy to demonize them, but there’s the tea. Time to drink it. (Strawless.)

Climate Crime’s Most Wanted

1. Avocados

We’re far from the first to target avocados for their crimes against the environment. Mocking Millennials for eating their weight in the creamy superfood has become one of the top Boomer habits. But it’s high time we cut back.

According to the World Economic Forum, 11 billion pounds of avocados are consumed annually around the world, most of which come from intensive production in Mexico’s Michoacán state, which has suffered some intense environmental damage as a result, with massive demand leading to destruction of diverse forest lands and monarch butterfly habitats.

Avocados also require an inordinate amount of water to produce: over 9.5 billion liters of water every day, according to the WEF. That’s about 60 to 70 gallons of water per avocado. And while that’s nothing compared to the 1,799 gallons estimated to produce a pound of beef, it’s a heckuva lot more than 34 gallons it takes to produce a whole pound of potatoes, or the 34 gallons needed per pound of broccoli. Due to its water consumption, a study conducted by Carbon Footprint Ltd found that two avocados have double the climate footprint of a two-pound bunch of bananas. And Dr. Erica Dodds, CEO of the Foundation for Climate Restoration and environmental and eco-anxiety expert, points to studies showing that avocados are among the three crops that’s causing the most water stress in their region of production.

Sustainability issues linked to the avocado aren’t just environmental, either. According to Mexico’s National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy, 46 percent of people in Michoacán live in poverty and – due to spikes in avocado demand in the global north – can no longer access this essential staple food.

“The price of avocado continues to increase, and with it, so does its disappearance from the tables of those who count on it as part of their diets,” Toronto-based, Mexican-born chef Aldo Camarena of Quetzal and Xolo tells BlogTo.

“Avocados deserve almost the same (if not greater) amount of societal outrage that we shouldn’t temper with the fact that they are a vegan staple,” says Borges.

In a word? It’s time to bid adieu to our avocado fetish. Instead, top your toast with creamy white bean hummus, hemp hummus, or beetroot spread to get your avo-toast fix.

2. Coffee

Coffee-lovers (ourselves included) often get a bit shifty-eyed when discussing the environmental and social impacts of this morning staple. Most of us know that our coffee habits are far from sustainable, but we tend to look the other way when it comes to the details.

Reader, please don’t look away.

Traditionally produced through shade-grown cultivation, coffee producers have since moved on to deforesting areas in order to increase sun exposure and thus produce more coffee in record time, Sujatha Bergen, Director of Health Campaigns, Health and Food Division of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), tells Mic. And of course, there’s the water question to contend with. One 2003 UNESCO study, found that a standard cup of coffee requires 140 liters of water to produce. This, in addition to a reduction in varieties grown, has led to more coffee and cheaper coffee, but it has also drastically reduced biodiversity and threatened the future of the coffee industry on the whole.

In 2015, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) released a report warning that at least 50 percent of the land used to grow coffee around the world will no longer support the crop by 2050, affecting not just the coffee supply but the livelihoods of those growing it. And while scientists tell the BBC that a “forgotten” coffee plant from West Africa could help coffee adjust to the changing world temperatures, our goal should really be to help keep those temps from skyrocketing and help maintain the livelihoods of coffee farmers like those in Colombia, who fear that climate change may “radically redefine the regions best suited to growing coffee,” reports EOS, making it impossible for them to continue to earn a living.

“We don’t think the average consumer is aware of how climate change is impacting coffee production,” Julián Gamboa, the impact manager at Urbania Cafe, a Colombian company that buys and roasts coffee, tells the outlet. “Usually, people see climate change as a very abstract and faraway problem, and that’s definitely not the case with coffee.”

It’s time to take a cold, hard look at your cold brew. Choose shade-grown, Fairtrade Certified brands that promote biodiversity and water management, or drink water instead.

3. Almonds

This one’s probably no surprise. The water demands of almonds have been well reported, due to the environmental damage caused by this plant-based milk fave in drought-plagued California, where over 80 percent of the world’s almonds are grown.

“It takes a bonkers 1,611 US gallons (6,098 litres) to produce 1 liter of almond milk,” the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s Pete Hemingway tells the Guardian. Just 16 almonds requires an estimated 15.3 gallons of water to grow. How many does it take to make your favorite almond butter? More than you’d be comfy with.

To respond to demand, Hemingway tells the Guardian that farmers have ripped up biodiverse citrus groves, and researcher Kelly Watson, an assistant professor of geosciences at Eastern Kentucky University, found that an estimated 23,000 acres of natural land, 16,000 of which were previously classified as wetlands, were actually being converted to almond orchards, Forbes reports.

To add insult to injury, an increase in pesticides used in almond groves is directly contributing to a decline in bee populations, reports The Seahawk.

Bye, bye, almond butter. Choose cashew or oat milk and cashew or sunflower seed butter for your breakfast needs.

4. Fast Fashion

Open your closet: How many things do you never wear? Well…start wearing them. Fast fashion is a major climate culprit no one wants to think about, and to begin now is not a moment too soon.

From leather- or petroleum-derived footwear to petroleum-derived synthetic fibers to cotton textiles (dubbed the world’s dirtiest crop for a reason), a lot of our clothes are made using unsustainable methods.

“The fashion industry is one of the most polluting and exploitative industries we have,” says Krystina Jarvis, the founder and CEO of A Drop in the Ocean, a sustainable living and zero waste shop and blog. “While the cost of living has increased significantly over the last several decades, the cost of fast fashion has decreased, so consumers are buying more and more clothes, because it makes us feel better about the things we can’t afford.”

Fast fashion accounts for approximately 10 percent of carbon emissions, 10 percent of industrial water use, 20 percent of wastewater, and about half a million tons of microplastics each year. Dodds notes that even organic cotton “requires a ton of resources. Up to 290 gallons of water is used to produce one cotton t-shirt.”

And the waste on a consumer level in the fashion industry borders on grotesque.

“Every year, 100 billion pieces of clothing are thrown away, and many fast fashion brands will actually incinerate unsold pieces rather than sell them at a discount so as to not ‘tarnish their brand,’” continues Jarvis.

Thinking about donating last year’s clothes to buy new? Think again.

“Donating to secondhand shops isn’t much better, since only about 10% of clothes donated are actually resold,” says Jarvis. “The rest are thrown away, or sent overseas for developing nations to deal with.”

And while some companies purport to be environmentally conscious, in many cases, this is pure greenwashing. As an example, Jarvis cites H&M’s clothing recycling program.

“On the surface, this program seems like a great way to keep textiles out of landfills, but in return for recycling your clothes, H&M gives you a 15% off coupon,” she says. “So not only is H&M one of the greatest polluters through fast fashion, producing 3 billion pieces of clothing a year, and even their former CEO has admitted the planet can’t keep up but they have no plans of slowing down, they’re actually incentivizing consumers to cycle through their clothes even faster.”

Solution? Wear your own clothes.

5. Plastic and Bioplastics

We all know about the dangers of plastic, but it bears repeating: even when you put plastic in the recycling bin, a lot of it ends up in landfill or incinerated.

“Many people believe that buying plastic and recycling is good enough when that is not the case,” says Shannon Woods of the Natural Baby Mama.

Indeed, Jarvis highlights a pervasive issue of “wish-cycling.”

“It’s the moment we have something in our hands and we’re standing in front of our trash and recycling bins and think to ourselves, ‘I don’t know if this is recyclable, but I’m going to put it in the recycling bin just in case it is,’” she says. “Unfortunately, this actually causes more issues with recycling, and can cause less to be recycled than if we had put that one item in the trash instead. A non-recyclable item in the recycling stream can cause an entire batch of recyclables to be contaminated, and therefore sent to landfill, wasting taxpayer dollars, time, energy, and resources.”

And to top it all off, many of our recyclables are actually shipped to other countries, like Vietnam and India, for processing.

“These countries are not equipped to handle our level of waste, so our recycling ends up in waterways, landfills, or is incinerated,” explains Morris. “Only 14% of plastic is actually recycled. Only 2% is effectively recycled, meaning it is turned into something as useful as before.”

And bioplastics aren’t much better, despite their plant-based branding.

“They can’t be recycled in many centers and are not home-compostable,” says Sarah Spencer, Founder and Director of Eco Passion, a company committed to helping people to reduce their plastic use and their impact on the environment. “So unless your recycling center has an industrial composter or a specific way to recycle them, then they will end up in landfill with other waste and they can interfere with the recycling process of regular plastic.”

“All of us need to realize that the only environmentally friendly kind of plastics is NO plastics at all,” adds Borges.

But as we approach Plastic-Free July, Jarvis has another recommendation: using what you’ve already got before making sustainable swaps.

“There are so many YouTube videos about ‘going zero waste for X days’ that make it seem like in order to be sustainable you have to cut everything out right away,” she says. “But the most sustainable item is the one you already have, and the only thing worse than a single-use item is a zero-use item.”

In sum: Use up what you’ve got, and then commit to a fully plastic-free lifestyle (including bioplastics!). (Straws included.)

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Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco