Commentary Magazine

The Last Straw

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File

Few things are as illustrative of the liberal predicament as the extremely recent moral panic over the threat posed by plastic drinking straws. Not only has this contrivance demonstrated the left’s confused priorities, it has also crystalized the extent to which this movement has a deluded perception of its own appeal.

The alacrity with which a variety of liberal urban enclaves passed ordinances banning single-use plastic straws, stirrers, and toothpicks was staggering. In 2008, the city of Seattle imposed plastic restrictions on its residents, but it has been implementing that measure as slowly as possible. This month, without much in the way of public input, the city withdrew statutory exemptions for plastic straws and utensils. Violators of the ban are now technically subject to a $250 fine.

San Francisco moved faster. In mid-May, a lawmaker from a town in which city-provided heroin syringes litter the streets insisted that disposable straws can be found in two-thirds of the refuse that makes its way into the Bay. She proposed an outright ban on all single-use plastics as a calibrated response to her dubious statistic and, by July, the city’s board of supervisors unanimously approved the measure. The zealous legislators in the city of Santa Barbara passed legislation that imposes up to a $1,000 fine and six months of jail time for illicit straw users. Several other municipalities and major cities are considering or have implemented similar bans on plastic straws and utensils.

“All of a sudden, everyone around the world is focused on this problem and taking action, and that’s what we’re doing with this ordinance,” San Francisco’s chief environmentalist insisted. And yet, as NPR noted, “at the center of conversations about plastic” is the presumption that Americans use approximately 500 million straws every day—a dramatic figure for a nation of just about 325 million people. Nevertheless, that figure has been cited by lawmakers, published authoritatively by the New York Times and CNN, and even reproduced by the National Park Service. There was just one problem: the source of that statistic was 9-year-old Milo Cress.

Cress, a fourth grader at the time when he determined that every man, woman, and child in America uses approximately 1.5 straws per day, arrived at that figure based on an extrapolation of the number of straws that manufacturers produce. How could this obviously unscientific metric have escaped the scrutiny of experts and skeptics amid our productive national “conversation” around single-use plastics? Because there was no “conversation” at all.

By “everyone around the world,” San Francisco’s chief environmentalist meant his allies in urban centers and on the coasts, and the occasional European bureaucrat. It’s a revealing comment. Everyone in the world—everyone who matters, at least—believes that single-use plastics are killing the oceans and that the industrialized West is a primary source of that pollution. He probably believes that there has been sufficient time and public debate on the measure, too. After all, Strawless Ocean, the Lonely Whale Foundation, and former “Entourage” star and UN Goodwill Ambassador Adrian Grenier have been demanding a phase-out of disposable plastics for, presumably, weeks. There’s even a viral video of a sea turtle struggling to dislodge a plastic straw from its nostril. Everyone has seen that. If you’ve somehow missed this lively debate, maybe you’re just not worth convincing.

If there had been a genuine give and take between adversarial factions, as was once customary in American politics before one-party municipalities summarily banned minor conveniences, the cities and towns behind this new prohibition might have been told that it would have almost no effect on the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean. Like carbon pollution, the vast majority of the estimated 10 million tons of plastic waste that is dumped into the ocean annually comes from the developing world. In March, the Economist reported that “scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, in Germany, found that ten rivers—two in Africa and the rest in Asia—discharge 90 percent of all plastic marine debris.” The Yangtze River in China alone is responsible for carrying 1.5 million tons of plastic into the Pacific each year.

The combination of technocratic arrogance, insularity, and condescension displayed by the left’s straw banners would be irksome enough, but our social engineers are not done inconveniencing you. Instead of disposable plastic straws, Americans are being asked to switch to biodegradable paper straws, which function precisely as advertised: They biodegrade upon contact with fluid. Slow drinkers will be treated to a mouthful of pulp if they’re not careful. But a little foul-tasting vegetable matter in your teeth is a small price to pay for a sense of moral superiority.

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