How Do Plastic Straw Bans Work?

The movement to ban plastic straws is growing, but phasing them out can be more complicated than it seems.

This story is part of Planet or Plastic?—our multiyear effort to raise awareness about the global plastic waste crisis. Learn what you can do to reduce your own single-use plastics, and take your pledge.

Major corporations like Starbucks, Bacardi Rum, Bon Appétit Management Company, Marriott hotels, Alaska Airlines, and American Airlines have publicly announced that they will phase out plastic straws in the coming years. And they aren't the only ones.

Seattle recently became the first major U.S. city to ban plastic straws. Council members in major cities like D.C. and New York have proposed bans, and smaller municipalities like Miami Beach and Malibu have at least partially implemented bans.

Though just a small fraction of all plastic pollution, straws have become a symbol of waste to rally behind and a feasible way for consumers to feel like they're making a difference. But how do such bans actually go from a pipe dream to a reality on the ground? And what impact will they have?

Who Advocates for Straw Bans?

In Seattle, the movement to ban straws first gained traction in 2008, when the city passed an ordinance requiring one-time-use food items be recyclable or compostable. The ordinance was updated in 2010, and by July of this year, plastic straws and utensils were prohibited from use.

“The basis of that was grassroots energy,” says Sego Jackson, a strategic advisor for waste prevention and product stewardship at Seattle Public Utilities. “It was community groups coming to the council.”

Straw bans have also been implemented from a more top-down approach. The Bon Appétit Management Company, a large food service provider with 1,000 cafes at places like colleges, museums, and workplaces, announced their own plans to phase out plastic straws last May.

Maisie Ganzler, the chief strategy and brand officer for Bon Appétit, says the decision was largely spurred by the company's CEO Fedele Bauccio.

“When I heard the stats and learned how much damage is being done by straws—a product of convenience—my gut reaction was, we have to change this,” Bauccio said in a press release.

After what Ganzler says was just a few months of consideration, the company announced a ban they expect will take just over a year to implement.

Environmental advocacy groups have also stepped in to demand straw bans. Lonely Whale, co-founded by actor Adrian Grenier, is one such organization, but rather than trying to sway potential voters, they focus on convincing businesses to lead the way.

“I think, philosophically, markets need to lead the way,” says Dune Ives, the group's executive director. “Policy helps codify what the market wants.”

How Hard Is it to Find Alternatives?

In Seattle, city officials initially struggled to find viable alternatives to plastic for straws when bans were first proposed 10 years ago. It was similarly a challenge to find alternatives for other single-use items.

“Finding a spoon that wouldn't melt in a hot soup was a challenge,” says Jackson.

At Bon Appétit, finding viable alternatives was also more difficult than expected. Ganzler says it wasn't just compostable straws they were looking for. Their plastic replacements needed to be biodegradable, too.

“We wanted to make sure that should our straws wind up in a waterway, it would break down in a short period of time,” says Ganzler.

She says paper will be the most widely used alternative, but Bon Appétit is also considering straws made of pasta, bamboo, and hay. (Just a century ago, Americans were drinking from hollow pieces of rye grass. Read more about the straw's history.)

“The biggest hurdle was finding a sustainable alternative,” says Alaska Airlines Sustainability Manager Jacqueline Drumheller. She says the airline will no longer offer plastic stir straws in its hot beverages like coffee and tea, and citrus picks will also be made from non-plastic material, but they still plan to stock compostable straws aboard flights.

One of the U.S.'s largest paper straw manufacturers is a subsidiary of Precision Products Group named Aardvark Straws. It was created in 2007 after eco-friendly businesses like zoos and aquariums asked manufacturers for more sustainable alternatives to plastic. Yet they are having trouble keeping up with surging demand, the company's global business director, David Rhodes, told National Geographic in a previous interview.

Bon Appétit has locations in 33 states, and Ganzler says it will be easier to phase in paper straws in regions with a higher concentration of restaurants because the demand will be higher. More sparsely populated areas may take more effort.

What About the People Who Still Need Plastic Straws?

When Seattle's ban fully went into effect this month, city officials faced criticism from disability advocates, who fear those who need straws most may not have access to them. Similar pushback is befalling other places looking to ban straws around the world.

Some disability advocates say there just aren't enough viable alternatives to plastic yet.

Some compostable paper straws are made from organic materials that can cause allergic reactions, they say. Paper straws can also be more difficult to use for people who have challenges swallowing or controlling their bites. And reusable straws made of materials like metal or glass can be potentially hazardous for people with some conditions.

“I think there have been some misunderstandings,” Jackson says of those who worry they'll no longer have access to plastic straws at restaurants. Seattle is encouraging vendors to keep a supply of plastic straws on hand for those who request one, he says.

Bon Appétit plans to do the same. Alaska Airlines says they will keep a supply of paper straws on hand.

Is it Expensive to Use Plastic Alternatives?

In an article published last month on National Geographic's website, Aardvark said paper straws typically cause about a penny more to make than plastic straws.

Bon Appétit declined to disclose how much it is costing them to switch to using paper straws.

“I think right now we're at peak straw pricing,” says Ganzler. “It went from being a niche product to being very in demand.”

In Seattle, fines are only imposed on businesses using Styrofoam containers, and Jackson says the coming year will be oriented around education and outreach. He knows businesses have different opinions on plastic straw bans, but he says businesses are being encouraged only to offer straws on request rather than stocking up a large inventory of paper straws.

Seattle's waste facilities are also capable of processing compostable plastic, a feature not seen in many city trash facilities. So improving infrastructure to better handle alternatives is another cost cities weighing plastic straw bans could face.

Is it Enough?

The merits of plastic straw bans depend on who you ask. Some say they're an incremental step in the right direction, while others say they simply put a distracting band-aid on our cultural dependency on plastic, especially single-use plastics.

Many of the recent plastic straw bans have emerged in left-leaning cities, or by companies who already tout a commitment to environmental sustainability. Ives says Lonely Whale typically reaches out to companies that are already likely to be environmental allies, versus wading into what may be more adversarial territory.

“Our theory of change is to work with companies that are already on the environmental side,” she says.

(Read more about what actually comprises the bulk of plastic pollution.)

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