Saving the Planet – One Straw at a Time

Marvin Timm


“Our Last Straw” wants to ban single use plastic straws. Will plastic straws really make a difference? We break down this claim and examine all aspects of plastic straws in our environment.



Good morning! You’re listening to radio station KUGR Kansas University Groovy Radio. I’m your host Lee Tim, and today I present the newest episode of our podcast series: Excuse me? You said what? [INSERT MUSIC TRANSITON] We’re here today at Kansas University, good morning! The organization Our Last Straw is a coalition of restaurants, bars, hotels, EBIT planners, and other organizations based out of Washington DC. They are on a mission to eliminate single use plastic straws. They make the claim that plastic straws are littering our streets, lands, shorelines, and oceans. Therefore, plastic straws should be eliminated and or banned. We’re going to take a look at this environmental claim, and examinee in a geopolitical manner. In geopolitics, we don’t just take a claim at face value, we ask ourselves three questions about this claim. Number one, how is the environment framed in the claim, and what aspects of the environment is missing from the claim? Number two, what is the human role or agency in this claim, and what is missing from the discussion? And number three, What is the spatial dimension of the human-environment relationships in the claim, and what other aspects of this relationship is not included? In other words, we’ll be looking at what they’re saying, and equally important, what they’re not saying. Let’s begin. [INSERT TRANSITION MUSIC] First, let’s look at what they say about the environment as it relates to their claim. From their website, they begin to paint a picture. Americans use millions of plastic straws every day. They note that these plastic straws are littering our streets, lands, shorelines and oceans, and at one point suggest that perhaps paper straws would be better. Plastic straws are entering the oceans and are one of the top ten contributors to marine debris pollution. This endangers animals such as sea turtles. They provide a dramatic video link widely viewed of a sea turtle having a plastic straw removed from its nostrils. Poor turtle! That video really pulls at your heartstrings. Plastic straws break down into microplastics which accumulate in the ocean and are ingested by sea birds and other marine life. Microplastics are therefore entering our food chain. That’s what they are saying. What do they not saying? [INSERT TRANSITION MUSIC] Plastic straws may be one of the top ten marine debris pollution, but they make up only 0.5% of the plastic in the ocean. That’s a pretty tiny fraction. Beverage containers and plastic bags are the two most common plastics in the ocean, and they are both heavily used in the hospitality industry. Why are they not talking about those items? Most plastic straws end up in landfills, not the ocean. Are they a danger in the landfills? That question is never addressed. And paper straws are definitely not a suitable substitute. They require more energy to produce than plastic straws. And since most of them have some sort of coating to prevent them from getting soggy, they don’t break down much better than plastic straws. [INSERT TRANSITION MUSIC] Next, let’s look at what role human activities and systems are identified in the claim. They point out that Americans use millions of plastic straws every day and the hospitality industry is a major distributor of these straws. They want local municipalities and government officials to introduce legislation to ban plastic straws. They say that raising public awareness and education is critical to making a long-term change. They want to educate the public when the question comes up: so why don’t you have any plastic straws? They see themselves as front-line educators in this education campaign and they want to work with non-governmental organizations to participate in their campaign. Once again, we must ask ourselves, what are they not saying? [SOUND EFFECT] The hospitality industry has historically had a dramatic impact on the environment, but it’s not just plastic straws. They impact the environment through energy and water usage, food waste, and the many other consumable goods like plastic bags, and beverage containers. We’ve already talked about this, but once again, we have to ask ourselves, why are they not talking about these things? They have a lot bigger impact on ocean pollution than plastic straws. Banning straws may make some people and corporations feel good, but there is a danger that we rest on our laurels and don’t really address the bigger issues. The hospitality industry is often accused of Greenwashing. Greenwashing is when an industry claims to be doing something to help the environment, but really, they may have ulterior motives that have nothing to do with the environment, like saving money. Except for the disabled, straws are a convenience, not a necessity. Straws are a First-World problem with the Third World impact.


Next up in our geopolitical examination of the story, we have to ask, what is the spatial focus of this particular claim? Our Last Straw works out of Washington DC to be near the center of power to promote legislative action. They point out that similar bans have already been enacted in Europe. They claim that eliminating plastic straws is a critical step to reducing single use plastics worldwide. Our Last Straw is building a framework for future efforts locally, nationally and globally, all very noble causes. Now let’s look at what they’re not saying.


Only a small portion of the plastic in the ocean comes from the United States, and plastic straws make up a tiny portion of that. If plastic waste is a big problem, and I believe it is, perhaps we should be also looking so elsewhere. Much of the blame for plastics in the ocean is placed on five countries, primarily in Asia. Poverty plays a big role in plastic waste because poor countries can’t afford proper waste management systems. Rich countries have historically played a large role in the impoverishment of these poor countries. What role do rich countries have in helping the situation? I would argue a lot.


So what do I think about this claim? There are many aspects of plastic waste in the oceans. It is a real problem with plastic waste endangering wildlife, and ending up in the human food chain. In order to solve this problem, we have to look at many other variables contributing to the situation. Why is plastic ending up in the ocean? Where is this plastic coming from? Who’s responsible for this plastic waste? Are plastic straws a significant problem? Why focus on plastic straws? Will banning plastic straws help? Our Last Straw has chosen to focus on banning plastic straws to address this problem. This would be a tiny first step in addressing the real problem. Are they engaging and Greenwashing? Or do they have a plan to meaningfully impact plastic waste? It is clear from my research that plastic straws do have a negative impact on our environment. But it is just a small part of the overall picture. What do I make of the efforts Our Last Straw is making? Our Last Straw is a coalition of hospitality industries. They are focusing on things they have some control over. In their website they say that banning straws is a first step. They recognize the use of single use plastics and their detrimental effects on the environment. It is interesting that their first step, banning straws, will save them money. Other solutions to eliminating single use plastics will cost more money. Will they follow through? Time will tell. They say that the elimination of straws will allow them to educate the public to the danger of single use plastic. Will they actually educate the public, or were they blame the elimination of straws on government ban policies? There is so much more they could be doing. Besides straws, the hospitality industry impacts the environment through energy and water consumption, food waste, and the use of other consumable goods and plastics. I tend to believe their heart is in the right place. I’m hopeful, but not totally convinced.


I hope you enjoyed our podcast today. Further information and a list of sources can be found at the end of the submitted assignment. This is your host, Lee Tim, from radio station KUGR, Kansas University’s Groovy Radio station. Look for future recordings in our podcast series Excuse me? You said, what? Have a great afternoon and remember, say no to plastic straws. The turtles will thank you!


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