New year, new/no straws?

No matter how bad you think your 2018 was, it doesn’t compare to the public backlash received by the plastic straw. The fate of the plastic straw changed once a gut-wrenching video of a straw being pulled out of a sea turtle’s nose went viral. Once a reminder of cocktails and beaches, the plastic straw became the face of the anti-plastic movement. Customers, campaigners and businesses came together to obliterate the plastic straw. It felt like the wheels were turning and I could see real tangible change, at least in Delhi where I stay.

do you suck
Taken from No Straws Attached’s Facebook page

Local campaigns like No Straws Attached were telling everyone to ‘Stop Sucking‘. Every time I forgot to ‘refuse the straw’, I felt genuinely guilty and responsible for causing marine pollution right from where I was sitting. But it wasn’t just about focusing on the problem. Several solutions started popping up. ‘Zero-waste brands‘ such as Bare Necessities and SuckIn sell alternatives to plastic straws. Companies started taking notice too. For example, Starbucks banned plastic straws from all its stores by 2020.

 

In the course of two years, almost every prominent restaurant I walked into had switched to paper or reusable straws. I spoke to three restaurateurs, who’s restaurants I visit frequently, to understand their motivation to make the switch. All three of them said that they did it because they are embedding sustainability in the way they do business. The campaign against plastic straws is important, but for these three business owners, the motivation came from their own ethics and values.

Does it make business sense to ditch the plastic straw?

Paper straws definitely cost more, but the difference is not significant enough.” says Rhea Sanghi, former Head of Marketing and Partnerships at Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters.

Radhika Khandelwal, Chef and Owner of Radish Hospitality, and Anahita Dondhy, Chef Manager at restaurant SodabottleOpenerWala, said that since the number of manufacturers of paper straws is increasing, the cost has come down over the last couple of  years. However, they feel that replacing plastic straws with paper ones is not the solution. Reusable straws are good, but there’s always a hygiene concern if they aren’t washed properly. Ultimately, we have to reduce the usage of disposable straws, whether its paper or plastic.  Blue Tokai follows these principles too, they don’t give a straw unless the customer asks for it.

“Straws are useless! We don’t need to use them so much.” adds Anahita

Radhika wants to take it to the next level in both her restaurants. She’s ordered a trial batch of biodegradable straws from Singapore that are made from potato starch. They’re five times more expensive that paper straws, but she’s all in – “Sustainability is expensive but we’re committed to making these changes.” 

Does the plastic straw deserve it?

For starters, plastic straws are non-biodegradable and come under the category of ‘single-use’ plastics i.e. they are used once and then thrown away. They’re usually not recycled as they’re ‘low-value‘ products for recyclers. They also often slip through recycling machinery for being too small, ending up in the landfill. This is worse in Asian countries where waste management systems are weak. A recent report by Ocean Conservancy stated that five Asian countries (China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam) are dumping more plastic in the ocean than the rest of the world combined. Further, 75% of this plastic is coming from uncollected sources.

plastic pollutionIt is estimated that there could be anywhere between 437 million to 8.3 billion plastic straws along the world’s coastline. While the numbers are huge, by weight, plastic straws only account for up to 0.03% of the nine million tons of plastic trash in the ocean. What’s more, a recent report in 2018 found that 46% of the ocean plastic accumulation comprised of fishing nets!  Going by the magnitude of the movement, I was expecting plastic straws to be a bigger culprit in ocean pollution. Not to say that millions and billions of plastic straws is not ‘enough’ of a problem, but considering the relative impact, why aren’t we attacking fishing nets the same way?

So, why was this campaign successful?

meme
Meme by Instagram page @zerowastememes

First, straws are easy to give up. The campaign’s call-to-action was clear. It required doing ‘one’ thing to make a difference. Ditching the plastic straw doesn’t require anyone to completely overhaul their lifestyle, like going vegan for example. Second, almost everyone uses straws, so it’s easy to feel a sense of achievement, feel like we can do something about it. Third, alternatives exist – paper, steel and bamboo straws are being introduced in restaurants and cafes, making it more convenient to switch. Fourth, the media campaigns around refusing the plastic straw have been engaging, young (read: memes!) and fun. Had it just been about the data around plastic pollution, the movement probably wouldn’t have been so powerful. The campaign resonated with every individual’s ability to give something up to make a better world.

Will we do the same to fishing nets?

Now imagine that this whole anti-plastic campaign was about fishing nets. Take a moment to imagine what that would look like. Would it resonate with a majority of the people? I can’t imagine such a vast consumer and business movement rallying up behind that! Even as a conscious individual, who now knows about the impact of fishing nets, I’d have to research the topic and figure out how I can make an impact. Maybe buy more clothes made from recycled fishnets (Econyl fabric)?! Jokes aside, I am concerned that some of the biggest problems are too complex to solve by just ‘doing one thing,’ they require systemic engagement and change. Fishing nets would not resonate with the average individual like the plastic straw did, but they require our attention much more.

However, this doesn’t change the fact that ditching the plastic straw is important and it’s having a sweeping impact all over the world. Only goes to show that, individual actions on a collective scale can move the needle!

 

3 thoughts on “New year, new/no straws?”

  1. Change can seem frustratingly slow. Your analysis of the criteria for a public action campaign to work is really helpful: simple call to action within consumer control (stop using plastic straws), practical alternatives (paper straws), and an engaging media campaign. We might add that plastic straw usage is publicly visible. Once the ethic on this shifts, it can quickly become embarrassing to use a plastic straw, as it would be to throw rubbish onto the street. Simplicity and visibility help here: plastic straws are easy to recognize and totally non-recyclable. Plastic packaging is different: we can’t tell if it is recyclable until we are 10 cm away from the packaging and can read the microscopic symbols on the label!
    In the UK, most of the big supermarket chains have signed up to the UK Plastics Pact, which commits to all plastic packaging being recyclable or compostable by 2025. http://www.wrap.org.uk/content/the-uk-plastics-pact
    So they are making progress. But I still feel impatient. Can we perhaps identify some more cases like the plastic straw and target them for direct consumer action now? For example, the net bags used for oranges and lemons are non-recyclable and easy to spot. There are easy alternatives: paper boxes. What about a campaign to get rid of these next? Alongside the systematic efforts being made by the industry, this would improve outcomes faster directly, and keep the heat on the businesses to improve faster too.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Martha! I feel like this campaign almost made it “uncool” to use plastic straws and that’s kind of what’s needed with consumer facing campaigns. I love that you’re thinking about how this can be applied to other things like like the plastic net bags. Essentially this can be applied to anything that’s visible and has easy alternatives available. Like one of the restaurateurs said – plastic straws are useless, when we start looking into, many such things we see frequently, might actually not serve much of a purpose.

      I’m on board if you want to start another campaign! 🙂

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  2. A really interesting post breaking down the reasons why the plastic straw ban gained so much traction so quickly, thank you. I agree with you that one of the reasons for this campaign’s success was that it asked a simple lifestyle change, not a complete overhaul of people’s habits. Another positive example of this, in my view, is Meatfree Mondays by Paul McCartney (https://www.meatfreemondays.com). Asking everyone to become vegetarian or vegan seems an impossible task, asking people to not eat meat on one day per week, however, seems reasonable and doesn’t require too many sacrificies, yet is a step in the right direction…

    The conundrum you pose towards the end of the article that plastic straws only make up a tiny percentage of ocean plastics and fishing nets have a much bigger impact, is a phenomenon we see in many areas of sustainability. When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions or water use, the small things we can all do to save energy or water at home can feel insignificant compared to the largest emission sources globally. And while I think that it is still important for everyone to do their part, no matter how small it is, it is easy for cynics to cite this fact as a reason for why they don’t get on board…

    I wonder whether there is also a risk in such a successful campaign: People might think because they dutifully changed their habits and got rid of straws, they have done their part. I wonder how often we can repeat the successful formula of one issue, one small change, before people become wary of all the things we are cumulatively asking them… or do the fast news cycle and social media habits play to our advantage here?

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