The bright, cold, bitter tang. The soft notes of walnut and dirt. The anticipation of the jolt of electricity. The feeling of wet cardboard in my mouth. Nowadays this is what I get when I grab my morning iced coffee in San Francisco, one of several municipalities that have banned plastic straws in recent months. The paper ones are a necessary corrective, the argument goes. They work just fine, while their plastic cousins choke the oceans and extend our dependence on fossil-fuel products.
But as a corrective, they leave much to be desired: Paper straws are a crummy solution to a problem that need not exist in the first place. Plastic straws might be everything terrible about American consumerism, individually wrapped. But paper straws put the lie to the belief that we can consume our way out of the problems created by consumerism.
In the case of plastic straws, those problems include overflowing landfills, dead marine life, and a garbage-clogged ocean. Plastic straws are—for most Americans, though certainly not all—a luxury, not a need. Still, we use an astronomical number of them a year. Their life span is short: Get extracted from a paper sheath, swim around in Diet Pepsi for three minutes, die. And their afterlife is long. Plastic gets entombed in landfills. In the oceans, it suffocates and strangles birds and fish and orcas and turtles, and breaks down into microplastics, pervading the food chain. An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the world’s waterways each and every year. In our lifetimes, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea.