This week, Starbucks, not to be outdone in the eco-woke competition, announced it will ban all plastic straws in their stores to combat ocean pollution. According to news reports, Starbucks will transition from customary plastic straws to paper or compostable straws and change beverage lids from the traditional flat, plastic lids to lids with a raised lip. One news article called these new lids an “adult sippy cup,” which seems fitting for an increasingly infantilized American public.
These corporate gestures are popular nowadays as we see companies increasingly eager to please their critics and social media-savvy activists. There’s the cereal company that, in trying to satisfy the anti-GMO activists (who don’t buy “big” brands anyway), removed GMOs from one brand of cereal but left GMOs in the rest of its product line. The company was shocked when the activists weren’t satisfied and left flat-footed when activists asked the obvious question: “If you can take GMOs out of one brand of cereal, why not all of them?”
Or, like the soup company that, in trying to placate the anti-sodium activists, reduced sodium in every single can of its much-loved soups despite already offering a low-sodium line, only to reverse course when sales tanked because consumers preferred the old, tastier formulations.
Or, like the large discount store that, in trying to secure the support of Obama-era nutrition scolds, initiated a new in-store labeling regime featuring a small green man, which was placed only on items the store and activists deemed “healthy.” Corporate executives were shocked when activists weren’t satisfied with just the label and seemed befuddled when activists demanded stores go further by simply ridding store shelves of items that didn’t earn the “green man” label. The big box store declined to stop stocking ice cream, cheese, salty crackers and chips, whole milk, hummus, candy, and many other items their customers enjoy.
And of course, there’s the fast food restaurant that, while trying to satisfy the childhood obesity activists, decided to take the toys out of happy meals and only provide kids with ten French fries, leading parents to simply buy extra fries or scrap the happy meal altogether in favor of regular menu items that contained more calories.
The reason these corporate gestures are so popular is because these problems—fears of GMOs, unhealthy eating habits in adults and children, easy access to processed and fast food, food labeling and corporate transparency, and, yes, ocean pollution—are complex issues. Gestures resolve only one thing: the corporation’s public relations problem of how to look sufficiently concerned. Yet these gestures do nothing to actually solve the problem itself.
Marine pollution is indeed a complex issue, but it is solvable. According to the United Nations’ Environment Programme’s (UNEP) report on marine pollution, the solution lies with the improvement of waste collection and management, which the report states “presents the most urgent short-term solution to reducing plastic inputs (into oceans and waterways), especially in developing economies.”
Those developing economies are precisely where these efforts should focus, because the rivers within developing nations are where the vast majority of the pollution originates. According to exhaustive study of waterway pollution published last November in Environmental Science and Technology, just 10 rivers—all in Asia and Africa—carry 93 percent of the trash that ends up in the ocean.
The UN Report acknowledges waste management is a worthwhile area on which to focus, reporting:
There are very significant regional differences in the extent to which wastewater is collected and in the degree of subsequent treatment. In some European countries nearly 100% of municipal wastewater is collected and subject to some form of tertiary treatment. In contrast, it is estimated that approximately 90% of all wastewater generated in developing countries is discharged without primary treatment (Corcoran et al. 2010). Primary wastewater treatment is usually designed to remove relatively large solids and would not be expected to capture microplastics. Secondary treatment is designed to remove dis- solved and suspended biological matter.
Perhaps then, instead of American companies gesturing their concern by banning straws in American coffee houses, they might focus their energy and money (money Starbucks is currently using to transition each store’s straw and lid stocks), to real solutions—like helping to better develop and modernize waste water treatment in Asia and Africa.