We Have Much Bigger Problems than Plastic Straws
President Trump was right to say that other issues are more important. When it comes to the environment, we need to make fundamental shifts in how we live our lives.
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July 2019 was officially the hottest month ever recorded, but if you only paid attention to the political headlines last summer, you’d be forgiven for thinking the biggest environmental threat we face is plastic straws. For that we can thank Brad Parscale.
“I’m so over paper straws,” the Trump 2020 campaign manager tweeted after suffering a straw blowout while boarding a JetBlue flight on July 18. The tweet, which included the hashtag #LiberalProgress, garnered more than 7,000 likes. It also gave Parscale a novel fundraising idea. Almost immediately, the Trump campaign began selling ten-packs of plastic Trump Straws for $15. When the first batch sold within 24 hours, the national media took notice, and not long after that the president himself was asked to weigh in.
“I do think we have bigger problems than plastic straws,” he told reporters before boarding Marine One. “It’s interesting about plastic straws. So you have a little straw. What about the plates, the wrappers, and everything else that are much bigger and they’re made of the same material? So the straws are interesting. Everybody focuses on the straws. There is a lot of other things to focus on.”
OK, leaving aside the fact that the Trump administration has a deplorable environmental record, this idea is one of the few things that President Trump has said that I resoundingly agree with. In fact, he’s exactly right. When it comes to the environment, we have bigger problems than plastic straws.
Which is not to say that banning straws is misguided. The plastic versions are indefensible. In the U.S., we throw an estimated 390 million of them into our landfills every day. Thanks to growing awareness, straw bans have proliferated, spreading from Seattle to Washington, D.C. But while outlawing straws is easy, truly addressing our planet’s health is much harder.
We’re only half woke to this reality. Take it from a fellow straw disdainer, passionate plastics recycler, and longtime bike commuter: these small actions make us feel like we’re doing something positive in the face of overwhelming challenges—and we are. But when we stop at this level, forgoing the straw but accepting the plastic plate and wrappers, we’re just self-administering palliatives. To make real change, we’re going to have to suffer more than we do when we wheel a recycling bin out to the curb or cut an annual check to our environmental surrogate of choice.
Let’s stick with plastic for a moment, because it’s illustrative. While plastic pollution is no small thing, plastic recycling is a joke. In the history of plastics, only 9 percent of it has ever been recycled. The contents you dutifully collect each week are more likely to be shipped overseas and eventually dumped—often into the ocean—than they are to be transformed into an upcycled fleece vest. Plastics recycling doesn’t make economic sense in the U.S.—or, increasingly, in the countries like China and Malaysia where we’ve historically shipped our used milk jugs. Which is why, at the current rates, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by biomass. The best thing to do with plastic is to dramatically reduce the amount of the single-use variety we consume. Cutting single-use plastics from your life isn’t that difficult. It takes mindfulness more than anything. But it demands a fundamental shift in how we, as soft-palmed consumers, live our lives.
“It’s interesting about plastic straws.” said President Trump. “So you have a little straw. What about the plates, the wrappers, and everything else that are much bigger?”
Revolution is a better word for such a shift. And since this is the Big Idea column, that’s what I’m calling for. Don’t be frightened—Che Guevara isn’t going to rise from the dead and make you work on a kolkhoz. This is a democratic revolution, the kind that made America great to begin with. Also France. It was that country’s revolution that Thomas Paine, one of our founding thinkers, was going on about when he wrote the following words, which I’ve tweaked to appropriate for my green revolt. When the polluting status quo is “too deeply rooted to be removed, and the Augean stable of parasites and plunderers too abominably filthy to be cleansed,” Paine said, then “anything short of a complete and universal revolution” is not enough. “When it becomes necessary to do a thing, the whole heart and soul should go into the measure, or not attempt it.”
Do you see where Tom and I are going here? It won’t matter if the oceans are full of plastic if life as we know it on earth comes to an end because we didn’t address climate change and a thousand other wrongs simultaneously. There’s little to be gained in debating paper straws versus Trump Straws. Revolution is about attacking Paine’s “hereditary despotism” of the establishment, something that elites, plebs, coal executives, lobbyists, environmentalists, farmers, Trumpians, Al Goreians, software engineers, ranchers, homeowners, red staters, and blue staters all contribute to. We each play a part in the problem, but we need to stop feeling helpless or paralyzed by our complicit guilt. We can rise up. We can’t stop at changing our drinking utensils and shopping with reusable bags.
Last spring, the writer Bill McKibben, a founder of the climate-activism organization 350.org, published Falter, a follow-up to his 1989 classic on climate change, The End of Nature. Given that we’ve made approximately zero progress on the climate issue in the past 30 years, McKibben’s viewpoint has understandably grown darker. Falter offers a devastating look at the severity of the problems we face—and the book isn’t optimistic about our chances of solving them. But McKibben hasn’t lost all hope. He identifies two key 20th-century inventions that give us cause for optimism. One is solar technology. The other: nonviolent political uprisings.
“The first Earth Day in 1970 saw 20 million Americans in the street or roughly 10 percent of the population,” McKibben says. “That was enough to get real change. That’s what we need again, and around the world. Along with working on individual changes in our lives, we have to be slightly less individual—to come together in the groups and movements that can actually change the underlying rules.”
The individual changes aren’t much harder than banning straws, but they require sacrificing some of the pseudo luxuries we’ve grown accustomed to. Cut back on or stop eating meat. Vote for electrified mass transit—and then use it. Make that home investment in solar. Plant trees and turn to wood construction over concrete. Use your buying power to support outdoor brands that use renewable and recycled materials. If you can afford an electric car, buy one—and encourage your government to invest in renewable energy to charge it with.
And although this seems hypocritical from a magazine that extols adventure travel, perhaps the most important consumer change we can all make is to book fewer flights. I take eight to ten domestic flights each year for work and to visit family. Air travel feeds my children and lets them know their relatives. But it’s also destroying the planet I’ll leave them. Today, 12 percent of transportation-related CO2 emissions come from air travel. And the aviation industry is expected to triple its carbon footprint in the coming decades. But what if it didn’t? As consumers we need to choose the right over the easy—and minimize our environmental impacts when we cannot. It’s great that so many of us now feel guilty grabbing a plastic straw for our disposable drink cups, but imagine if we looked at ordering a cheap plane ticket or overnight delivery the same way? That’s real sacrifice.
As for McKibben’s call that we should think more collectively, those opportunities are flourishing, too. A sort of eco e pluribus unum is upon us. “The most hopeful sign this year has been an explosion of pressure groups,” he says.
Fridays for Future, inspired by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, rallies students to go on strike for the climate. You can sign up and organize your own strike using its website. Extinction Rebellion demands that citizens in the UK form assemblies on climate and ecological justice that direct the British government on policy. The Sunrise Movement has helped ensure that the climate debate is being talked about in the current U.S. election cycle.
These are the beginnings of big global movements, but if a plastic-straw boycott is what it takes to get people contributing, then so be it. You might recall that our revolution was initiated on a similar boycott. (Ironically, we dumped that English tea into the ocean.) But it was the underlying collective change in consumer behavior across the colonies that mattered. Our founders switched from tea to coffee and used other economic tactics to strategically grow independent from England. That was a different crisis—the global plague of colonialism. Right now, a global environmental crisis is upon us. It’s time to discard complacency. It’s time for desperate resolve. It’s time to move beyond straws.