2018 was the year of the plastic straw. This everyday object became the new “poster child” for environmental damage and degradation. Environmental groups such as the Surfrider Foundation launched aggressive media campaigns against plastic straws, garnering enough momentum to pressure responses from corporate America. Big corporations from Marriott to American Airlines have made commitments to reduce or eliminate their use of plastic straws. But are companies only using this issue as PR to boost their image and improve their CSR initiatives?
One of the most visible and talked-about commitments to eliminating of plastic straws came from Starbucks. The Seattle-based company publicly pledged to “eliminate single-use plastic straws from [its] more than 28,000 stores by making a strawless lid or alternative-material straw options available around the world” by 2020.
While this looks very good on paper, it does not translate so well to actual corporate action. According to an investigation by Reform, a monthly print magazine, the new plastic lids actually weigh more than the combination of the current lid and plastic straw. In other words, Starbucks is actually producing more plastic than before and consequently, more plastic waste despite the elimination of plastic straws.
Plastic straws are the tip of the iceberg in the problem of plastic waste. Society’s overproduction of plastic for one-time use products such as soft drink bottles is the real problem. According to data from the United Nations, nearly nine million tons of plastic waste enter the ocean every year. Of those nine million tons, only 20,000 tons come from plastic straws. According to Science Magazine, roughly 12 billion tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or the environment by 2050 if production continues at current rates.
Of course, society has to start somewhere. It cannot suddenly reduce every single type of plastic waste overnight. This would have far-reaching consequences and require a shift in labor and supply chains, business models, and consumers’ attitudes. However, companies that are jumping on the anti-plastic straw bandwagon need to be more conscious as to how they are replacing them. When a major corporation such as Starbucks makes a change that will increase the amount of plastic in the millions of disposable cups it sells per day, the damage can be devastating.