Grasping at Straws

On the Pitfalls of Plastic Straw Environmentalism

I’m worried about all this talk of banning plastic straws.

I understand the strategy. The “straw campaign is not really about straws.” It’s meant to leverage a larger conversation about single-use plastic and plastic waste in waterways and other ecosystems.

But the focus on straws surfaces two related problems with “lifestyle environmentalism.” The first is that we often want consumers to care about environmental impacts that just aren’t a big deal in the scheme of things. If we want to educate conscientious environmental consumers, we should be honest about the scale of the problems and the results of our actions. The second problem flows from the accumulation of all sorts of these straw-sized environmental problems. If environmentalism becomes about vilifying so many of life’s small pleasures and conveniences, I fear it will turn off more people than it rallies to its cause.

If environmentalism becomes about vilifying so many of life’s small pleasures and conveniences, I fear it will turn off more people than it rallies to its cause.

Straws are the least of it. We hear often about the environmental sins of choosing pre-wrapped produce, taking showers longer than 30 seconds, eating almonds, keeping DVD players plugged in, flushing the toilet, using air conditioning, getting Christmas trees, drying clothes in a machine instead of letting them air dry, and buying mangos in January. These activities, like really everything, have environmental impacts. They’re just quite small on a planet of rising carbon emissions, continuing deforestation and biodiversity loss, nitrogen pollution, and other major environmental problems. As the late, great David Mackay put it, “If everyone does a little, we’ll only achieve a little.”

That’s not to say that certain types of consumption don’t carry big environmental impacts. Flying in planes and eating beef are pretty impactful. But, short of studying it deeply for a long time, how is one supposed to know how big a deal any particular action is, ecologically speaking? Given the myriad signals and deafening noise consumers hear about how to live an eco-friendly life, it’s no surprise that little of it has taken hold. Many will hear admonitions against particular lifestyle choices as nagging or condescending.

What, then, might a better lifestyle environmentalism look like? For starters, it would recognize the often significant disconnect between what feels eco-friendly and what yields the biggest environmental gains. Food consumption is a typical example. An increasing number of scholars recognize that the conventionally “green” choices of organic and local food often cause greater environmental damage than industrial, large-scale food systems. At Breakthrough, we’ve put together our Sustainable Gastronomy dinner series to give people new ways to think about eating ecologically. One perhaps counterintuitive insight of that project is that industrial, large-scale agriculture often yields lower per-calorie environmental impacts than smaller-scale and/or local and/or organic farming.

But ultimately, the best way to accelerate significant environmental progress might be to worry less about individual consumption and more about the production side of the equation. After all, a person might consume the same amount of electricity but have radically different environmental footprints if they live in Sweden, where power production is mostly low-carbon hydro and nuclear, as opposed to Germany, which remains largely powered by coal and natural gas. Impacts on wild nature can decline substantially with the increased availability of “synthetic” alternatives, like petroleum products as an alternative to whale oil, synthetic rubber as an alternative to natural rubber, and farmed fish as an alternative to wild-caught fish. In the case of plastic, we might do better to focus less on straws and more on fishing practices, since straws account for less than a tenth of a percent of ocean plastic waste and catch-related plastic accounts for over half.

I’m sympathetic to the impulse behind the straw campaign. Straws are a very visible form of plastic consumption, and a campaign to use fewer straws might spark a broader shift around plastic use and plastic waste. I can imagine a middle-case future in which plastic straws are available but not universal, alternatives like biodegradable plastics scale up considerably, and all parties are satisfied. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we should be writing laws based on those activist campaigns. And above all, we should be careful not to construct a largely performative, scolding environmentalism that is disconnected from the scale of the problems it claims to address.