OPINION: Plastic straw activism

Nick Hunter headshot

Nicholas Hunter

Recently, there has been a big movement to end the use of drinking straws. 

Starbucks recently unveiled lids reminiscent of toddler sippy cups to replace straws completely by 2020. Last week, Seattle, where Starbucks was founded, announced a ban on plastic drinking straws and other plastic utensils beginning immediately.

The move has been greeted with great applause on social media, with celebrities ranging from Chelsea Clinton to Larry the Cable Guy chiming in with opinions on the change.

The boisterous applause for this move leaves me uneasy, though. From a long-term perspective, it seems to allow Starbucks to whitewash the over 20 years of pollution created by Starbucks products — with one change, the public seems to be giving them a free pass from obligations to fix past mistakes.

While these are major issues Starbucks needs to confront along with taking this moral high ground, this is revealing of an issue I’m seeing more and more often in political activism.

The movement to eliminate single-use plastic drinking straws is objectively a good one, but it is striking how many people I’ve seen in my own life latch onto this so fervently who still buy a 36-pack of bottled water and ask for plastic bags at grocery stores instead of bringing totes.

Recently, I’ve had the chance to talk to a few people who have worked on political campaigns, and they’ve all mentioned the same scenario: An excited, suddenly politically engaged person shows up to volunteer for the campaign. They phone bank, canvass or pass out information. They leave the workday satisfied and proud, never to return again. 

While my friends are quick to point out that help is help and they won’t criticize anyone willing to give up a day for a good cause, I can’t help but feel this feels similar; giving up a day when they likely had little else going on to walk away satisfied they’ve affected change. 

Of course, using less plastic and volunteering a free day to help on a campaign are good things to do — that isn’t what I’m criticizing. 

What bothers me is what happens after. Issues like pollution, poverty, homelessness and immigration need dedicated, long term advocates. People who help along the way are welcome and encouraged to contribute. 

But, plain and simple, it is detrimental to create a system wherein people can make false moral or social accomplishments without any actual cost or risk and be congratulated for their efforts. 

Many people are focused so hard on the issue of banning drinking straws because it’s a virtually zero-cost concession; you get to pat yourself on the back for standing up for a good cause without any real day-to-day cost. 

But the attitude that one day of help, or never using straws, gives you the lifetime checkmark for activism, only leads to finger pointing and redirecting the blame, not real change, so in the end, we’re left with a much more toxic political environment and more coffee stains on our white shirts.

Nicholas Hunter is the opinion editor. Contact him at [email protected].