Devil’s Advocate: The California straw bill is wasteful and doesn’t create significant environmental impact

In Devil's Advocate, Opinion
trash bin with straws coming out, trash bags on the floor
(Anita Huor / Daily Titan)

California is taking its eco-friendliness to the next level as lawmakers passed a bill on Aug. 23, which made it the first state to prohibit restaurants from giving out plastic straws unless told otherwise by customers.

Environmentalists may be ready to celebrate and feel full of triumph, but this is far from the moment to shout “hurrah” or “yippee” in self-satisfaction. The plastic straw bill in California is just one small step in a massive environmental movement that desperately needs to pick up more momentum. And even then, it is far from ideal legislation.

Anyone who has seen the heart-wrenching video of the turtle with a straw in its nose can recognize that the ocean has an obscene amount of plastic and trash that negatively impacts ocean wildlife. Even those who may have somehow missed this video can find clear evidence of the environmental burden of trash by visiting beaches where leftover plastic bottles or cigarette butts can be seen everywhere.

The problem isn’t that people are so foolish to believe that their actions aren’t negatively impacting the environment, as that much is overwhelmingly evident. The real issue that many people often run into is that unless they have clear alternatives presented to them, they won’t go out of their way to avoid products that produce waste.

Tough legislation is meant to fill the gaps and make environmental efforts more manageable, and less of an individual pursuit. As shown by the legislation passed from the plastic straw bill, AB-1884, it’s a decent attempt, but it’s only half-hearted at best. However, legislation works best when immediacy and execution are intertwined, which is a difficult feat to accomplish.

One of the earliest issues that became apparent with the plastic straw bill was that those writing it did not consider how reducing the availability of straws would affect people with disabilities. Ultimately, this is where the main problem lies: There aren’t any effective widespread alternatives that can sufficiently replace the current plastic straws.

Nicole Seymour, a Cal State Fullerton associate professor of English who teaches courses in environmental humanities, notes how the alternatives vary in their efficiency, and how disabled people in particular may face difficulties with the current alternative straw choices.

“In personal experience, the paper straws get wet really easily. I’ve actually seen these paper straws that are supposed to be flexible and has ridges in the same way as a plastic straw but it just doesn’t move around in the same way,” Seymour said.

While one may easily compare the plastic straw ban to past legislation surrounding the single-use plastic bag, many forget that reusable bags — a permanent and easily accessible alternative — had already existed in the United States well before the ban went into place in California.

The use of plastic straws isn’t going to end as rapidly as one would hope.  This isn’t to say that the efforts in reducing plastic straw usage are meek and useless. In all the headache and chaos, ultimately at least some efforts are being made. As Seymour said, these efforts are making a contribution to a better environment, even if it may seem like a nuisance at times.

“I’m coming from the humanities side and interested in depictions of the environment, the rhetoric around the environment and getting to know more about the straw thing,” Seymour said. “I haven’t experienced any great alternatives (to the plastic straw), but I think that if you keep in mind the minor convenience versus this huge problem it starts to seem easier.”

However, at the same time, it’s important to view this plastic prohibition as only the beginning of a battle that has yet to be won. The Great Pacific garbage patch located between California and Hawaii is still floating in the ocean and consists of over 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, according to The Ocean Clean Up, a nonprofit organization that helps get rid of the current plastic residing in oceans.

It’s easy to see California’s plastic straw bill as something greater than it really is. The idea that this could signal significant progress toward greater environmental consciousness and lead to vast reductions of trash in the oceans would be an idealistic assumption at best.

Considering the pollution currently floating in oceans as well as plastic and other trash being thrown away regularly, it’s one very minor step in the greater scheme of saving the environment and making people more aware of how their actions impact the ecosystem.

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