Straws. They hold useful place in our language. “The last straw” (that breaks the camel’s back). “The short straw” (usually a sign someone’s about to die in the movies). “Grasping at straws” (desperate attempt to salvage a situation).
Of late, however, straws have become quite the bête noire – at least the plastic ones. One jurisdiction in California passed a law calling for significant financial penalties and potential jail time for restaurant workers handing out straws. For a time, you couldn’t click on a news site without seeing a story about the horrors of plastic straws.
Where on Earth did this come from? Well, mainly from an oft-repeated “statistic” that Americans used some 500 million (that’s MILLION) straws every day. Then a magnificent leap was made to a further “statistic” about plastic pollution in the Earth’s oceans. Throw in a couple photos of sea otters or some other critters with straws up their nose, and it’s clear that the plastic straw is the greatest evil ever created.
First off, although a number of well-respected entities use the “500 millions straws a day” statistic, in reality it stems from a not-so-scientific science report written by an 8-year-old. Can we just back up a bit and wonder why anyone came to believe that number in the first place? The population of the United States – men, women and children – is approximately 330 million, so according to this statistic, every American uses 10 straws every week. Every American, every week – without fail. I don’t use straws of any sort, so somewhere out there someone is using 20 straws a week. I’m guessing infants don’t use them either, so there’s another 15 million Americans using 20 straws a week. Sorry, but “500 million straws a day” is an idiotic “statistic.”
Then we leap to plastic pollution in the waterways of the world. Well, yes, there is a lot of plastic pollution. But not from the U.S. Less than 1% of water-borne plastic pollution comes from the U.S. (and you can imagine that straws represent a miniscule portion of that). Virtually all of it comes from Asia and Africa. So some poor restaurant worker is exposed to criminal liability because Asian and African countries pollute their waterways? C’mon. Where’s the common sense?
For my part, I’ve been pretty “meh” on straws since about third grade, when straw manufacturers seemed to conspire to make it impossible to blow the straw sleeves across the cafeteria. If you think it’s better to have paper straws than plastic, that’s fine. But can’t we have these discussions without getting hysterical about it?