S⁠t⁠arbucks’ Las⁠t⁠ S⁠t⁠raw

By: The James Madison Institute / 2018



By Patrick Martin

Starbucks’ decision to discontinue its use of plastic straws is an example of a market-based solution in action. The coffee giant made the decision to expand its use of a strawless “sippy cup” style lid earlier this month. The decision follows a years-long movement in the U.S. to encourage the public to stop using plastic straws. After an alarming video of a sea turtle with a straw in its nose went viral, the social movement, lead by the hashtag #stopsucking, hit the mainstream. Celebrities advocated, news networks publicized, and policymakers listened. Earlier this month, Seattle became the largestf 5 U.S. cities[1] to ban plastic straws  Should the decision to ban straws be made at the legislative level or should it be left up to businesses to decide?

Many companies have taken the lead, including Starbucks. Starbucks’ decision to replace straws with sip-able lids is a great example of a company acting on an environmental consideration. Starbucks did this without any mandate from the government and has even invested $10 million in the NextGen Cup Challenge, which seeks to develop a fully recyclable and compostable hot cup.

However, the new “sippy” lid comes with its own consequences. A review by Reason finds that the new lids, on average, use more plastic than the old straw and lid combination.[2] Starbucks addresses this by stating “By nature, the straw isn’t recyclable, and the lid is, so we feel this decision is more sustainable and more socially responsible.”[3] Recyclable lids only see their benefit if they are actually recycled, so this change may have a hard time reconciling with the fact that 90 percent of global plastic isn’t recycled, according to Greenpeace.[4]

Much of the reason behind the anti-straw movement is that it is an easy, personal choice. Simply not asking for a straw with your drink takes little effort, and every little bit counts. This contrasts with some other bigger issues that are harder to tackle. Plastic straws make up only 0.02 percent of plastic waste in the ocean.[5] One other single product makes up 46 percent of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – fishing nets.[6] For a problem that is 2,300 times greater than straws, why isn’t there a proportional outrage?

This is a matter that should be left out of government hands. I’m speculating that Starbucks’ decision took years of researching and its consequences are not even fully understood, from plastic litter to its impact on the disabled community. A lot more research needs to be done before the government steps in and bans the use of plastic straws. What alternative should restaurants use? Is there even a good alternative? What about the disabled community? What happens if a turtle with a metal straw stuck up its nose gets 35 million views on YouTube?

Ian Claderon, the Democratic majority leader in California’s lower house, has proposed a $1,000 fine and 6-month jail sentence for waiters who serve a drink with an unrequested straw. There are many different perspectives on the government’s role in private businesses. Some schools of thought, such as that populated by John Maynard Keynes, say the government exists to “correct for external costs.” This means, for example, if you pollute a river and it costs the person downstream $100 downstream to fix it, the government is supposed to pass on that cost of $100 to you. This is the basis of thinking for things like the Carbon tax. I can see someone making this argument for straws. But is a straw worth $1000 and six months of your freedom once it hits a glass of water?

The U.S. does have a single-use plastic culture. Being more aware of your use of plastic and how much waste you produce is a great way to do your part. I scoop my rice into glass jars at the grocery store instead of using their plastic containers. I bring my reusable grocery bag. I know that it’s not that much, but every little bit helps. However, When I see someone being hauled away in handcuffs for not doing that  “every little bit,” then I’ll know something is wrong.