Everyone loves the party game/icebreaker “two truths and a lie.”
Can you identify which of the following is NOT true about straws?
A: Plastic drinking straws make up a very small percentage of ocean pollution
B: Most ocean plastic pollution originates in the United States
C: Straw bans harm the disability community
Let’s take these statements one at a time:
You may have heard the claim that Americans use 500 million plastic straws a day and that most of them end up in the oceans, killing sea creatures. Yet, that figure is an exaggeration and what’s worse, it isn’t even based on real data. The rather odd story behind this dramatic figure is that it is based on data promoted by a recycling center called Eco-Cycle. When the number generated media attention, the company confessed it couldn’t back up the number and admitted it based it off the research of a 9-year old boy who conducted phone surveys with straw manufacturers in 2011.
Despite the figure’s dubious origins, the “500 million” number has become sacrosanct and the basis for 2019’s plastic straw panic, which resulted in all out bans on plastic straws in some U.S. cities, certain hotels and restaurants, and a flurry of legislative actions to outlaw straws and even fine businesses that still provide them to consumers.
The reality is far less scary. Plastic straws actually account for only a tiny percentage (around 0.03 percent) of the 8 million metric tons of plastics that enter the oceans each year. Instead of straws, discarded fishing gear dumped directly into the ocean is the main problem.
Ocean pollution is a serious problem. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, billions of pounds of trash is dumped into the ocean each year. Yet, 90 percent of that comes from Asia and Africa—not the United States!
In fact, analysis by the World Economic Forum found that 10 rivers all in Asia and Africa—the Yangtze, Indus, Yellow, Hai He, Fanges, Pearl, Amur, and Mekong in Asia, and the Nile and Niger in Africa—are responsible for the vast majority of trash in the oceans. A study of waterway pollution confirms this finding that the same ten rivers—all in Asia and Africa—carry 93 percent of the trash that ends up in the ocean.
This is partly caused because of the lack of wastewater treatment infrastructure in developing nations. A 2016 UN Report on waste management found that approximately 90 percent of all wastewater generated in developing countries is discharged without primary treatment
Washington DC-based writer and disability advocate Karin Hitselberger explained in a Washington Post opinion piece that straw bans will harm the disability community:
While reusable straws and redesigned cups may be a great solution for most people, they are not an option for many people with disabilities. For example, paper straws, which are most often cited as the best alternative, are not temperature safe, often dissolve in water and can become a choking hazard. As for lids designed to be used without a straw, they require the cup to be lifted by the user, which many people cannot do.
People with a huge range of disabilities depend on plastic straws to access beverages and the very water they need to survive: cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis, among many others. For so many people with disabilities, something as mundane as a straw represents independence and freedom. And the conversation around their environmental impact, without consideration of who uses straws and why, demonstrates how people with disabilities are often forgotten.
When governments and private industries consider banning certain products to solve a problem, they would be wise to consider what other problems will be created thanks to those prohibition policies. Banning straws to remove 0.03 percent of ocean pollution at the price of harming the disability community seems a steep price to pay.