When we talk about luxury, the first things that come to mind are the sports cars and private islands favored by the Rich Kids of Instagram. But those of us less blessed still live surrounded by everyday luxuries, from the smartphones in our pockets to the flatscreen TVs on our walls. We take even simpler things for granted, including one particularly ridiculous kind of indulgence that has found itself in the political crosshairs: the plastic drinking straw.
The straw is absurd in both creation and purpose. Think about the time, money, and energy that goes into crafting a device that only exists so you don’t have to raise your cup all the way to your mouth: We extract oil from the depths of the earth, which is then shipped to factories that convert it into petrochemicals, which are eventually molded into something so cheap and abundant that the idea of paying for one has probably never crossed your mind.
And then when we’re done we throw them into the ocean, just because.
It’s no surprise there’s a campaign to get rid of straws. San Francisco and Seattle have both discussed giving them the boot, while Starbucks and Disney are in the process of phasing them out. Going all in on being anti-straw has been an easy way for politicians to signal their virtue and businesses to save some cash.
But not everyone is happy about the idea of plastic straw bans. They may not like the idea of oceans filled with plastic waste, but they also don’t like having something they’ve used their entire life taken away without having a say in the matter. It also doesn’t take more than a simple Google search to see that in the big picture, plastic straws are a tiny problem.
Both sides of the argument might have their hearts in the right place, but they’re also both wrong. By being so forcefully committed to their position, they fail to see the middle-of-the-road solutions. When it comes to plastic drinking straws, there’s a third way, one that doesn’t need to bring down the heavy hand of government or turn a blind eye to environmentally destructive indulgence.
But before we can go any further, let’s at least acknowledge that most able-bodied adults don’t need straws, and that using them is mildly ridiculous. It’s a life hack from the Sumerians that we’ve never gotten past, and that you could easily live without. But the fact that we can live without them doesn’t mean we should be forced to give them up just because sea turtles don’t know how to avoid inhaling them.
So rather than just saying, “No more straws, sorry not sorry,” why not work toward alternatives that curb our usage of them? And nothing will get people to change their habits like hitting them in their wallets. Straws are abundant and disposable because they’re cheap, so let’s fix that part of the equation.
We need a straw tax.
Want people to think twice about using a straw? Charge for them. The price doesn’t really matter, because the fact that they have a price is what is important. Once people are having to pony up to stay lazy, the market is going to respond with new straw innovations. While the straw itself has been pretty much perfected, there are plenty of people out there still shooting their shot on designing a better one. And if you have doubts that there’s a market for new and better straws, just remember that Amazon is being flooded with knockoffs of a popular Kickstarter straw. There are also ways to skip the straw altogether, with better cup and lid designs, like the adult sippy cup rolled out by Starbucks. There’s definitely room to design a better sippy cup.
A straw tax could easily be expanded to other environmental nuisances. After all, the straw is far from the only piece of plastic that ends up in the ocean. Curbing our destructive consumption of single-use plastic items is something that has to happen for the long-term health of the planet. And the sooner people have to pay for these items, the sooner they’ll start paying attention to them.
We can’t ban our way to a better world, no matter how much activists trying to save our oceans would like that to be the case. The problem isn’t plastic straws or plastic spoons or plastic bags; it’s our wasteful consumer lifestyle that prizes single-use laziness. You can get rid of plastic straws, but what about the single-use plastic cups they go with? It will be more effective to focus on why we produce so much junk, rather than the composition of that junk. And when that's the priority, a straw ban is about as lazy as using a straw itself.
Cory Garcia is a freelance writer based in Houston.