NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Plastic straws are just the latest symbol of a problem; human behavior is the cause

Fort Wayne's Aardvark Straws is a leading maker of paper straws like this.. (Courtesy photo)

Plastic straws are bad, say environmentalists. So we should all feel guilty about using them and should do our part in saving our planet by joining the growing campaign to ban them.

Or is this latest environmental frenzy just a straw man fallacy?

Starbucks, which has more than 28,000 stores around the world, announced last month that it will stop using disposable plastic straws by 2020. Food service giant Aramark, which operates in schools, businesses, prisons and hospitals in 19 countries, says it will reduce its use of straws by 60 percent by 2020. Santa Barbara, Calif., passed an ordinance that could mean up to six months of jail time for restaurant employees who give out plastic straws. Seattle has instituted a $250 fine for those who distribute straws. And San Francisco’s city council passed an ordinance that, once approved, will ban plastic straws beginning in July of 2019.

Even the Allen County Department of Environmental Management has discouraged the use of straws by suggesting they be offered only upon request.

The problem with plastic straws is that they are not biodegradable and not recyclable. They seem to end up in our nation’s waterways and ultimately the ocean. The recent publicity condemning plastic straws and praising efforts to ban them, however, may not be commensurate with their actual significance in efforts to preserve our environment.

“Among the problems with the modern environmental movement is it majoring in the minors,” writes John Stonestreet in a recent column for the Breakpoint Journal for the Colson Center. “Environmental activists and legislators obsess over trivial life choices that have little real impact on the Earth, but which give the appearance of eco-friendliness.”

While Stonestreet, a fellow of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, agrees that a case can be made for serious steps to stop an environmental crisis, he argues that case cannot be made over plastic straws. The Ocean Conservancy’s 2017 Coastal Cleanup Report found the most common trash item on beaches around the world is cigarettes, followed by plastic bottles, bottle caps, wrappers and bags. Straws and stirrers placed seventh on the list. Bloomberg News estimates that on a global scale, straws would probably only account for 0.03 percent of total plastic waste by mass. Furthermore, a study by the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research last year found that 90 percent of the plastic in the world’s oceans comes from just 10 rivers, all located in Asia and Africa.

Environmentalists say the fight’s got to start somewhere. But the problem is not plastic straws. It is human disregard for the environment through thoughtless littering. Rather than threatening huge fines and jail time for those distributing plastic straws, how about concentrating on people throwing their straws — not to mention cigarette butts and other trash — onto the ground or into our waterways?

“Changing public behavior,” Stonestreet argues, “would go a lot further toward saving the environment than aggressive bans on one very tiny, inconsequential piece of plastic.”