As Starbucks and Disneyland both announced plans to remove plastic straws from their offerings, the debate surrounding the effectiveness of plastic straw bans seemed to reach a fever pitch.
Critiques of the ban run from cries of ableism to shames of lazy activism. Along with that span, people have questioned whether one person not using straws can even make a difference and questioned if plastic even harms the planet all that much.
For the last two points, the answer is a resounding "yes". Approximately eight million metric tons of plastic ends up in the world's oceans every year.
Starbucks' planned ban on straws will eliminate upwards of one billion straws a year; Disneyland's similar plan will remove more than 175 million straws and 13 million stirrers annually. This will hugely benefit marine life that is threatened by the increasing amount of plastic waste in the world's oceans.
But the immediate effect on ocean health is lost among the noise of other concerns surrounding the debate on bans. According to some, the ban is ableist because many with disabilities need straws in order to drink beverages.
This argument overlooks two key points: that Starbucks will offer non-plastic straws as an alternative to those who ask, and the fact that reusable straws of several different material and size options are available for inexpensive prices on sites such as Amazon.
The wider concern comes from a place of apprehension; will this just encourage people to not use straws and then think that is enough to save the planet? Will this just lull people into a calming mindset that they are doing enough, and should do nothing more?
I'm far from an expert, but in my humble opinion, plastic straw bans are none of the above. Are they a final solution to the multitude of climate change-related issues we all collectively face? No, not at all.
But refusing single-use plastic straws is a step easy enough for people to take in their daily lives. No average Joe will be able to stop bug oil companies from polluting water systems on his own. Jane Doe can't directly and single-handedly change a country's environmental policies.
But Jane and Joe and all of us can stop using plastic straws and throw them to a landfill after one use. The ban, and the subsequent push to convince people to refuse all single-use plastics is accessible to all people.
It is one area in which every person actually does have the power to drastically improve the world for the thousands of species that call oceans home.
Plastic straw bans empower ordinary citizens with an extraordinary impact on the environmental problems about which they hear so much. I don't know if it will lull them into a false sense of security, but I do know that the end result will still be a greatly improved ocean system.
That should be celebrated; mocking "small" actions like this will only further isolate people from the movement to improve our planet. The last thing this world needs right now is more apathetic people doing nothing to fight climate change.
The plastic straw ban is not the end-all, be-all solution to the problems we face, but that doesn't automatically make it useless. We should all take steps as simple as not sipping from a one-use plastic straw while enjoying our coffee, or tea, or whatever you order from Starbucks.
In the long run, a higher amount of people participating in an act to help the planet will help not only Mother Earth but all of the people who call her home as well.