There has recently been a wave of plastic straw bans across the United States as conservation-minded businesses and municipalities alike seek to cut down on harmful waste. Starbucks announced it will be doing away with single-use plastic straws in all of its stores. American Airline will curtail use. The city of Seattle (home of weird plastic emporium Archie McPhee!) has banned vendors from providing plastic straws and New York may follow suit soon. This is likely good for the environment, but it is bad for parents (say what you will, plastic straws work) and makes one question the nature of our environmental priorities.
It’s important to first understand just how much plastic straws contribute to plastic waste. If you’re counting by the piece, those straws count for about 4-percent of plastic pollution. Compare that to plastic bottle caps that account for 18-percent of plastic pollution by piece. By weight, of the 9 million tons of plastic found in the world’s oceans, straws make up about 2,000 tons. Is that insignificant? No. But it’s not a massive percent and there are some clear benefits to the straws. Plastic straws are commonly used to help kids graduate from bottle feeding. Why? Because sippy cups can be harmful for kids. Not only do falls with sippy cups contribute to over 2,000 emergency room visits a year (not a ton, but enough to worry a nervous dad), speech therapists say sippy cups can delay appropriate speech patterns by maintaining a suckling-like movement in drinking when it’s no longer developmentally appropriate. So, there’s that.
Why are straws good for kids? It’s actually quite interesting. Straws change the way a child moves their tongue and mouth. Sucking on a straw is advantageous to speech development as kids begin to talk. And, being bendable, straws decrease the chance of severe injury to a child who stumbles while sipping (parents know this is a thing). Finally, straws help prevent mess with children who are too young to drink from an open cup.
And the alternatives to plastic straws aren’t great. Stainless steel straws are dangerous due to the rigidity and sharp edges. Silicone straws can close up when bent and paper straws dissolve as a slobbery kid drinks, making even more of a mess.
The point here isn’t that banning straws is bad. Environmental responsibility is important. If parenting is about anything, it’s about leaving kids with a better world. That said, parenting is also a long series of compromises and plastic straws might not be the place for unflinching fealty to the enivonmentalist cause. Why not focus on all the caps, which are more destructive and less useful and leave the straws be? Maybe just for a moment? Maybe just until my kids stop spilling stuff?
Or maybe focus on packaging? My house, like many like it, is perpetually filled with plastic waste from plastic toys. The manufacture of the toys notwithstanding, the waste create by the needless plasticine and convoluted packaging is insane. And, yes, I try to avoid buying plastic toys when possible. It’s not always possible, but I do try.
I do not, however, buy wooden straws.
Does a plastic straw ban raise awareness about plastic pollution? Sure. And some consumers who don’t require plastic straws may even begin to use alternatives. That’s an undeniably good thing. But in our zeal to do a good thing, let’s not shift the burden onto parents — or, at the very least, let’s not do it without acknowledging what’s hapening.