The Straw Ban Fallacy

Ocean plastic and the waste of good intentions

This is the first of a two-part series that explores the issue of ocean plastic. Read part two here.

Photo: Michel Stockman

In 2018, plastic straws fell out of society’s good graces. For most people, it really seemed to come out of the blue, namely Blue Planet II. The BBC documentary’s final episode dealt with the effects of plastic on the oceans, and it rang the year in, airing on January 1st. Separately, but in no doubt benefitting from the rising awareness, various organisations launched a series of hashtags like #skipthestraw and #stopsucking. Their goals were the same as — and thus gave a second wind to — Milo Cress’ “Be Straw Free” campaign, which he had launched back in 2011 when he was just nine years old. All of this was galvanised by the re-emergence of a 2015 clip of a marine biologist pulling a jammed straw from the nose of a pained sea turtle. 

The perfect storm: The Google trend for "Plastic Straw Ban”

The response was huge. The city of Seattle voted to ban plastic straws. The state of California legislated a phase-out. Airlines (Emirates), companies (Disney), and major chains (Starbucks and McDonalds) joined in. All of this in a matter of weeks. It was, undoubtably, a great display of how the public can force through both corporate and institutional change if the pressure reaches a certain fever pitch — a trend that has replicated itself several times in the short years since.

However, while the main narrative was one of victory (a victory for sustainability, the seas, and for turtles) I would argue that it was very little of any of those. In fact, given the size of the problems at hand with ocean plastic in particular and plastic more generally, it’s my opinion that this campaign wasted a lot of public momentum for minimal overall gain.

The myopia of the ‘ban plastic straws’ campaign

The straw man fallacy describes a form of argument wherein you misrepresent and simplify your opponent’s position and then attack this new view — the straw man — instead of the original, more complex position. 

What the straw man fallacy is to a discussion, the straw ban was to the issue of ocean plastic. Instead of slowly, deliberately and painstakingly grappling with the convoluted issue at hand, we manifested a simpler, one-dimensional villain, and then swiftly killed it. We did all of this while leaving the original problem completely, utterly, unresolved. 

As far as I can tell, this is not the fault of anyone in particular, and perhaps it may even be an inherent Catch-22 to public protesting and campaigning. You must boil a problem down into a single punchline to rally the populace to take action, yet you do so at the expense of this action not amounting to much at all.

An Old Fashioned drink, in more ways than one (Photo: Sandie Clarke)

One way of measuring whether a public campaign has suffered at the hand of its own reductionism is perhaps to see how hard the private sector fights against it. This for the simple reason that companies’ primary purpose is profit: social and environmental undertakings are costs (if they were profitable, any well-run company would have implemented them already). 

In the case of the plastic straw ban campaign, companies jumped aboard suspiciously fast. In doing so, they achieved two things: 

  1. They managed to lean into the progressive ‘conscious consumer’ movement, proclaiming their dedication to the oceans for positive PR, media mentions, and general goodwill. All factored in, swapping to more expensive paper straws probably yielded a very nice return on investment for most of these companies. 

  2. They did not have to rethink their fundamental relationship to plastic. Textbook greenwashing. By signing on quickly to the straw ban, hammering the point and keeping the conversation focused (or rather myopic), a company like Starbucks did not, for example, have answer for the far more destructive business practice of selling every drink for takeaway in a disposable cup that is at least part plastic. Globally, a total of 500 billion of those are sold each year. Five hundred billion.

This same myopia is also experienced by the public. With the issue of ocean plastic simplified to whether you ‘skip the straw’ and bring your own metal drinking tube to the café (or your own bag to the supermarket), you might turn a blind eye to other, more harmful industries that you tacitly partake in. For example, perhaps you enable the $35 billion fast fashion industry, an industry that will deliver polyester (plastic) clothing the same day you order it, neatly packed in several layers of plastic packaging. If you don’t like those clothes, you can send them back for a full refund, either to be re-wrapped again or simply discarded. If you do keep the clothes, they’ll start shedding micro-plastics in your washing machine. 

There are other major dragons that must be slain too: like the endemic of single-use plastic in food deliveries (which have exploded in 2020), and new ones like disposable masks, the market for which is expected to grow from a starry $800 million last year to a supernova-like $166 billion this year.

Photo: Brian Yurasits

What did we lose sight of?

To reset the narrative, here are some of the facts we may have lost sight of: 

The plastic problem is enormous. It requires systemic changes. And while there are positive developments, including ambitious EU regulation on phasing out single-use plastics, there is no doubt that the deluge of waste will continue into our seas for years to come.

So, we must stop it.

We can do this by literally fishing for plastic before it gets lost at sea — starting with the lowest hanging fruit: the 10 most polluted rivers on Earth, responsible for as much as 25% of all ocean plastic. This is what we at Verdn will do with our partner Empower, the where’s and how’s and why’s of which will be discussed in the next post.

Until next time.