Devil’s Advocate: The California Straw Bill will help reduce single-use plastic waste

Environmental protection in California has continued the momentum of Proposition 67 — which banned the use of single-use carryout bags by food retailers — by now passing bill AB-1884, which prohibits sit-down restaurants from serving plastic straws without a customer request.

This type of regulation for plastic straws must be wholeheartedly supported because it keeps plastic waste out of landfills, reduces carbon emissions from plastic production and furthers the goal of eliminating single-use plastic items.

Plastic can take centuries to decompose: items currently in landfills may still exist 1,000 years from now.

It’s estimated that somewhere between 4.8 and 12.7 million tons of plastic ended up in the ocean in 2010, according to a 2015 report published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  

Opponents of the regulation are eager to point out that the majority of the plastic waste comes from Asian countries with underdeveloped waste management systems. This argument reeks of privilege and racism.  

Others argue municipal waste only makes up a small fraction of the percent of plastic waste, and that the real culprit is large industrial operations. While these arguments are valid in regards to the broader problem, they miss the point.  

Living in a world of limited resources, regulation is part of a set of solutions that promise to improve environmental sustainability.  However, without public support, even the best environmental regulations won’t have their desired effect. Consumers must take responsibility for waste they can control, and try to hold industries accountable through collective action and democratic regulation.

The war against waste is multifaceted. Material scientists are hard at work, developing affordable, biodegradable plastic alternatives known as bioplastics. Many bioplastics are biodegradable, but unfortunately, the term is a bit misleading.  Biodegradable plastics break down under high-temperature conditions as opposed to compostable plastics that will break down under natural conditions in a landfill.  

Recycling can keep waste out of landfills, but the recycling industry has been dealing with the loss of its No. 1 customer: China,which makes it harder for recyclers to operate profitably.. Bioplastics also exacerbate problems with our recycling system by acting as contaminates, sending the entire batch of processed material to the landfill instead of the recycler.  

Plastic already at sea poses a costly fix. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of ocean plastic twice the size of Texas between California and Hawaii. Innovative efforts by The Ocean Cleanup are scheduled to begin this week, and estimated to cost 317 million euro ( approximately $367 million USD).

Increasing the global plastic recycling rate from 9 percent would reduce the amount of plastic going to landfills, according to a 2017 study published by Science Advances.  

While nearly all plastic is technically recyclable, straws are too small to be processed with current machinery and will end up in landfills even if they are disposed of with recyclables. Therefore, the only way to keep straws out of landfills (and oceans) is by reducing the overall number being produced.

Plastic is used extensively for housing, healthcare and food, but there are not always acceptable alternatives. For example, when Seattle passed regulation that banned single-use plastic straws outright, disability advocates pointed out that some people actually needed plastic straws and that there are no acceptable alternatives for them. Fundamentally, this legislation takes the important step of recognizing the difference between convenience and necessity, and then regulating waste accordingly.  

AB-1884 is most auspicious when viewed through a political lens rather than a practical one. It will not directly improve waste management systems in problem areas, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do. A logical next step is to adopt further legislation regulating the use of all single-use plastic items in all retail settings.  

The state of environmental health is already well past critical. Everyone has a moral imperative to try to reduce waste, especially privileged nations like the United States, who emits more than double the amount of carbon per capita when compared to the rest of the world.

But what about the delicious taste of soda sipped through a straw? Sure, there are plenty of wasteful convenience items to miss, but it’s far more concerning to think about how waste has been taken for granted. Looking closer reveals that people’s relationship with waste is way out of whack.  

An environmental reckoning is upon us. As the problem only grows, everyone must search for problematic behaviors, make them visible, and address them individually, collectively, and through institutions. Every legislative attempt to improve the environment is important to winning the fight for the planet.

If you liked this story, sign up for our weekly newsletter with our top stories of the week.