The plastic straw ban: why conscious consumers have missed the point

The plastic straw ban: why conscious consumers have missed the point

Their straws may be green, but their environmental impact definitely isn’t.

Starbucks have been widely praised in the last 2 days for announcing their plans to eliminate plastic straws from all of their stores by 2020 – on the surface a move which seems like good news for the environment.

They’re one of many brands to respond to consumer pressure from consumer-led campaigns like #SayNoToStraws and #StopSucking, but have we missed the point?

With 13m tonnes of plastic litter ending up in the ocean each year, plastic pollution has been deemed as dangerous as climate change.

There’s no denying that single use plastic straws are one of the worst culprits. When a heartbreaking video of a straw being extracted from a turtle’s nose went viral on Facebook many people were spurred into action, calling for a ban which many major brands and even cities have already adopted.

The issue may have galvanised the public, but experts have criticized the move as “missing the point” against the larger problems we’re facing with waste management around the world.

However, Nicholas Mallos, director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program, has praised Starbucks as “a shining example of the important role that companies can play in stemming the tide of ocean plastic” – but when you look past the headlines, their straw ban isn’t as green as you might think.

Their plastic straws are usually given out with iced coffees and their signature Frappuccinos, which come in takeaway plastic cups and account for 11 cents of every dollar in revenue Starbucks makes. They now plan to redesign the plastic cups with ‘sippy cup’ style lids…made from plastic.

Frappuccinos will still come with a new “eco-friendly” straw made from compostable plastic.

Unfortunately, despite the friendly sounding label, compostable plastic will only biodegrade under special circumstances. It’s not suitable for household compost and needs to be taken to an industrial facility to be placed under the right heat conditions – so it’s likely that these will still end up in landfill where they may actually do more harm.

In landfill there is minimal oxygen which limits the process of biodegradation. When a piece of compostable plastic breaks down in landfill it emits methane – a harmful greenhouse gas. So it might not be around for a thousand years but those compostable straws will still harm the planet if the consumer doesn’t dispose of them correctly.

How this can be praised as progress is, to be honest, beyond me. The brand’s argument is that straws can’t be recycled but the plastic cups and new larger lids can be. However, the UK throws away 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups every year and less than 1% of coffee cups are recycled.

Major coffee retailers like Starbucks should be stepping up and taking more responsibility. If smaller chains like Boston Tea Party, who have 21 branches around England (compared to the 345 branches of Starbucks) can ban single use plastic cups, then global brands with access to more resources should be leading the way when it comes to sustainability.

Starbucks gives a 25p discount for hot drinks when customers bring reusable cups and is trialling a 5p levy on disposable cups in 35 London stores, but when it comes to making major moves with the environment in mind, it seems they won’t be doing anything before they’ve tested how it will impact their profits – a move that McDonalds are equally guilty of after announcing a similar straw ban recently but no plans to phase out single use cups.

Instead, several major brands including Starbucks and McDonalds have agreed a joint deal to roll out recycling points across the UK for the cups which require specialist equipment to recycle.

Yet again this puts the onus on the consumer to ‘do the right thing’ while making the brand look good. With recycling points more widely available, if these cups still end up in landfill it will be the consumers’ fault for not choosing to bring a reusable cup or make use of recycling facilities, while the brands are praised for their surface-level environmental efforts.

Conscious consumers are often calling for brands to make eco-friendly living easier, complaining that the responsibility currently falls completely to them to make the right choice and do the right thing – which often comes with less convenience and at a higher price.

As one of those conscious consumers who will often go out of my way to do the more eco-friendly thing, I am all in favour of efforts to cut out single-use plastics. But aside from the fact that many people rely on straws, and we need to find a solution that is both sustainable and fair, by focusing our efforts on calling for a straw ban we’ve missed an opportunity to create real change.

Banning straws might be a “step in the right direction” but by investing our efforts into these campaigns we’ve allowed brands to go for the low hanging fruit and benefit from the positive PR of doing so, without investing any real resources into finding more sustainable alternatives.

I’m all for small steps when it comes to conscious consumerism, but the brands are listening and responding at the moment, so right now we should be putting more pressure on them to go all in and take sustainability seriously.

We are on the edge of an environmental crisis, one in which small steps aren’t going to be enough. If the straw ban proves anything, it’s that big brands respond to consumer demand so it’s time to raise our voices, hold them to account and push for scalable, sustainable and accessible alternatives with real environmental impact.

The straw ban has built support and awareness around the plastic problem and consumers are starting to hold themselves accountable for plastic waste – so isn’t it time the brands did the same?

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  • Caroline Aistrop
    Posted at 09:47h, 11 July Reply

    You make a very pertinent point, Sian. I do feel that we have to accept that some companies can only take small steps and need leading by the hand. I think those that embrace the sustainability issue on a big scale are led by, or have a key person internally, who understands and is already committed to, the sustainability cause. The key question is how we, the sustainability sector, galvanise the public voice to urge companies to take the next step.

  • Amber Rankin
    Posted at 04:11h, 18 January Reply

    I honestly hadn’t done a deeper dive on this – and reading that starbucks will address their straws but not the excess plastic from cups and lids is just plain ridiculous

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