I Will Let Go of Straws When You Let Go of the Bloated Corpse of Capitalism
This is not a hot take. This take is, at best, lukewarm and rapidly cooling.
But you know what? IDGAF. You knew what you were getting when you saw the title of this thing, and you clicked on it anyway, so here we are.
Fuck your straw ban.
Look, let me level with you. I was, initially, fairly blasé about this whole straw nonsense. Whatever, ban the straws if it makes you feel better, I guess.
When I mentioned to my boyfriend that I was going to write a rant about straws, he appeared very slightly nonplussed. “You looked at me like I was crazy when I ranted about straws weeks ago.”
“Yes, but then it personally affected me, and now I’m annoyed about it.”
(This is true, by the way — I definitely did give him the patiently-suffering-through-your-dementia stare several weeks ago when he was on about straws, but I do that frequently, so I don’t know why it was particularly noteworthy on that occasion. It’s also true that I immediately conceived of writing this piece when I was personally inconvenienced by the anti-straw campaign and not a moment before.)
When I mentioned to one of my friends that I was going to write a rant about straws, he said, “What’s the problem? I know it doesn’t solve the whole thing, but it’s a step in the right direction, at least.”
No. It’s bullshit.
Every little bit helps, right?
Oh my god, of course it doesn’t.
Save an extra penny every day for a year, and you’ll end up with roughly enough money to buy yourself a cup of coffee. Did that help? Does that impact your life in any meaningful way? I don’t care how much you like coffee; it almost certainly did not.
Some bits are too little to help. Not everything is a meaningful change.
Is this straw thing a meaningful change?
Well, let’s look at a few numbers, shall we?
There’s a widely-touted estimate that Americans use 500 million straws a day. A child came up with that number. No, I’m not being facetious — a literal 9-year-old child was the originator of that number and everyone’s been running around accepting it. OK, fine, kids aren’t always totally stupid and I respect that this one cared enough about a thing to do some research and then become an activist to try to make a change in the world. That’s legitimately rad and the sort of thing we should be encouraging all our kids to do.
But, also, fellow adults, could we fact-check statistics that are produced by 9-year-olds? Please? No?
Ok, so, nobody’s actually sure how many straws America uses every day; apparently we’ve all just collectively decided to to roll with this 500 million number. Fine, for the sake of argument, let’s accept it. Yearly, if I’m mathing correctly, that comes to around 183 billion straws.
Americans also use an estimated 100 billion plastic bags annually. (I don’t know where that number originally came from either; it might as easily be another 9-year-old — I’m just taking what appears to be the generally accepted numbers being used in news articles and by advocacy groups, etc.) Add in other plastic wraps and the number goes up to 380 billion.
Americans buy an estimated 50 billion plastic water bottles a year. And that’s just water bottles. Think about how much shit you buy that comes in a plastic bottle and isn’t water. There’s a lot more plastic in a water bottle than there is in a straw.
Look around at your life. Look at the shit you throw away every fucking day. The takeout containers and cutlery and cups and cans and bottles and packaging and all the miscellaneous other shit. Do Americans throw away a lot of straws? Yeah, probably. We throw away a lot of everything.
According to Seth Borenstein, an AP science writer who is, at least, not a 9-year-old child, “Straws make up about 4 percent of the plastic trash by piece, but far less by weight. Straws on average weigh so little — about one sixty-seventh of an ounce or .42 grams — that all those billions of straws add up to only about 2,000 tons of the nearly 9 million tons of plastic waste that yearly hits the waters.”
Yeah, we throw away a lot of straws. We also throw away a whole shitload of other stuff, and that other stuff adds up to exponentially more mass than straws.
Ok, you get it, there’s a lot of trash and straws are a relatively small portion of it.
But isn’t this whole anti-straw thing an important symbolic gesture that raises awareness of the problem?
Really, is it?
How many people do you know who were like, “Oh wow, this straw thing is a really good point and now that I’ve been enlightened about ocean trash, I will examine all of my other habits of consumption to decrease the amount of waste that I am generating on a daily basis.”
Did you yourself do that?
Or did you and everyone you know just go, “Yeah, straw ban, cool idea,” and pat yourself on the back because you can rest easy now, knowing that the next time you see a video on Facebook of someone yanking some plastic out of a turtle’s facehole, it’ll be some other miscellaneous bit of garbage plastic instead of a straw?
Don’t you care about the turtles, Kari?
Look, it’s not that I don’t care about the turtles. I like turtles as much as the next gal (though not as much as my husband, who really likes turtles).
I’m not anti-marine life. I want the turtles and the dolphins and the fish and the ungodly horrors of the deep to kill and eat each other as nature intended, not to die choking on plastic bullshit.
I also don’t want them to die because we’ve turned the ocean into a poisonous wasteland filled with raw sewage and chemical waste and oil spillages.
I also don’t want them to die because sewage and agricultural runoff has created massive “dead zones” where there’s no fucking oxygen and basically nothing can live.
Plastic trash in the ocean is a problem. I’m not denying that. But it’s not the only problem, and even if we all collectively agree to have an epiphany about plastic right now on behalf of the sea turtles, we’re still failing to address additional massive pollutant issues.
Do we have to fix everything all at once?
No, of course not. In this case, that’s pretty much impossible.
But we should try to actually fix something. And right now we’re not doing anything that matters. We’re getting rid of straws because it makes us feel like we’re doing something, and for most of us it’s an easy and meaningless sacrifice that doesn’t impact our lives in any important way.
Doing away with straws is the thoughts & prayers of environmentalism. It makes us feel like we did something good without having to put in any actual effort whatsoever.
Meanwhile, your precious turtles are still nomming plastic bags and sucking down toxic chemical waste and dying of humanity. And you’ve made life more difficult for many people with disabilities, because as I’m sure we’ve all heard by now, the straw ban is ableist AF.
How is it ableist? People who need a straw can still ask for one.
Ok, let me tell you about being personally affected by this straw nonsense.
For context: I’m an able-bodied adult woman and I am, generally, a pretty confident gives-no-fucks kind of person.
My husband and I stopped into an absolute cliché of a hipster coffee shop in Chicago a few weeks ago, where I ordered an iced latte. I was handed my latte in an open plastic cup. I spotted lids at the end of the counter, went to grab one, and looked around confusedly seeking a straw until I saw a sign on the counter informing me that this establishment was taking a stance against straws, but if I really wanted one, I could ask the barista for one.
We were planning to walk with our coffee a few streets over to a theatre where a friend of ours was holding a comedy showcase. I needed to drink my coffee, and I also didn’t want bugs in it or to spill it while I was walking.
But. I looked at the barista, who’d given me the classic I-hate-you-and-everything-around-me barista glare when I ordered, and, honestly, I was tired (hence the caffeine pit stop) and I just didn’t feel like getting judged for wanting to suck my coffee through a sea turtle death stick.
I complained to my husband, who in turn gave me the patiently-suffering-through-your-dementia stare and told me to just drink from the open cup. (I did and successfully did not spill on myself or acquire any insects during our walk. This is not the point of the story.)
The point of the story is that while I just wanted a straw for the sake of convenience and, yes, was easily able to go without it, the same is not true for everyone. The same forces that stopped me from getting a straw could as easily stop someone else who actually needs a straw from getting one.
If a person has a disability and needs a damn straw, should they have to subject themselves to the potential judgment of some barista or waitress or whoever in order to acquire it? Do you think people with invisible or nearly invisible disabilities don’t have to deal with this kind of shit enough already? Should we as a society should just unthinkingly put more hurdles up to make people’s daily lives more difficult? I know this is not an insurmountable problem. It’s not the end of the world to have to ask someone for help. But when you are tired or in pain or just have spent your whole day struggling over some multitude of difficulties, even a small roadblock can feel like a big one. Asking for help can feel like making yourself vulnerable. Maybe we shouldn’t expect people to feel like they have to give up their dignity in order to drink their damn iced coffee.
Why not bring your own reusable straw if it’s such a big deal to have to ask for one?
Yes, I could do that, sure. I’m not going to, because I have enough things on my keychain and in my purse already and I’ll be damned if I’m going to be the kind of asshole who carries around a fucking titanium straw in a box or whatever, I don't care how many FinalStraw ads the internet shoves in my face.
If you mean to suggest that people with disabilities who need straws should carry such things around, well, yes, that might be a reasonable option for some. Of course, if a person needs a straw due to mobility issues, a reusable straw that needs to be disassembled and cleaned might not be much of a useful accommodation…
OK, so what the fuck do you want me to do, Kari?
Honestly, I don’t much care what you personally choose to do. Do you want to forego straws because it makes you feel better? By all means, feel free.
What I want us as a society to do is stop putting the burden of change on consumers and acting like there it is, that’s the solution, now it’s just all up to the individual people to go ahead and implement it.
Yeah, that’s right, nearly 2,000 words into this bitch and I’m finally going to get to the capitalism thing.
The thing about this anti-straw shit is it puts the burden on the individual American consumer to solve a problem created by global industrial and waste management practices and corporate disregard for everything except money.
Here’s a fun fact: Did you know that a handful of Asian countries create more plastic marine pollution than the entire rest of the world combined? Do you know where all that plastic they’re dumping in the oceans comes from? Well, according to Greenpeace (I know, this is far from an unbiased source, but let’s be real, the question of where the plastic is coming from is practically just basic common sense), it’s coming from massive corporations, most of them Western, selling cheap consumer goods en masse to these developing countries.
It doesn’t matter if you and I and our six turtle-loving friends all stop using straws. It doesn’t matter if every person living in America right now stops using straws. America’s straws are a tiny blip in the vast ocean of consumer plastics being produced and thrown away all around the world every day.
Why do we humans use so much plastic? It’s cheap, it’s durable, it’s cheap, it’s lightweight, it’s cheap, it’s useful, and it’s cheap.
A capitalist society will basically always favor cheap and easy over pretty much anything else. That’s just how capitalism do. We’re all of us constantly scrabbling to earn as much money as possible and buy the things we need and want as cheaply as possible.
I assume you understand how capitalism works, but just so we’re all on the same page here:
A capitalist system, by its very nature, relies on an endless cycle of production and consumption in order to function. You make money by getting people to buy your stuff. In order to continue making money, you have to continue getting people to buy your stuff. That means continually producing new stuff that people might want, and/or it means producing single-use stuff so that people have to keep coming back to buy more.
And what’s the cheapest way to make a bunch of stuff? Hey, plastic is cheap! If you can cut your costs, you can sell your stuff for cheaper than your competitors, which means people are more likely to buy your stuff, and plastic helps cut costs. Also and/or alternately, if you can cut costs, you can increase your profit margin, to make more money off the stuff you’re selling.
What this means is that a capitalist system has no intrinsic motivation to produce less stuff or do it more sustainably — that would cut into profits, and the whole point of capitalism is to maximize profits.
And that’s why we the consumers have to demand change, right? We vote for the environment with our dollars.
I mean, sure, in theory.
But a lot of consumers are poor.
If you’re fighting to stay above the poverty line, or living beneath it, you’re probably not going to choose the sustainably-produced but more expensive product in biodegradable packaging. You’re taking the cheap shit wrapped in plastic, because you need to stretch your dollar as far as possible.
If you’re barely scraping by with enough to feed your family, properly recycling those plastic containers is fucking low on the list of shit you have the time and energy to worry about. That’s some basic hierarchy-of-needs shit that I hope I do not need to explain to you, reader.
There are a lot of people in the world. Only a very few of them are rich. Environmental stewardship is a luxury that many consumers straight up cannot afford.
And even for those of us who are reasonably well-to-do, there aren’t any other goddamn options. Everyfuckingthing is plastic. Because plastic is cheap and durable and cheap and lightweight and cheap and useful and cheap, and therefore manufacturers are going to keep manufacturing shit with it.
You want to not use straws? Fine. But look me in the eye and tell me you can reasonably cut all single-use plastic out of your life.
And you know what else? Cutting out all plastic isn’t even a particularly good solution. What are you going to replace it with? The environmental impact of producing similar quantities of paper packaging, for instance, would be massive and devastating.
Anyway, there’s a vicious cycle at work here. Plastic is cheap, so manufacturers use it because cheap is good for them; it’s cheap, so consumers buy it, because cheap is good for them; manufacturers keep making it because consumers keep buying it and consumers keep buying it because manufacturers keep making it. Profits are maximized, stuff is consumed, the rich get richer, everyone else keeps fighting over scraps, and as long as you can feel reasonably assured you’re going to die before the earth becomes uninhabitable, who cares? #capitalism
Meanwhile, we're polluting the oceans in a whole fuckload of other ways, too (sewage, chemicals, oil spills, noise, etc.). Why? For the sake of profit, in some cases, and in others just because it'd be too much trouble not to.
No one makes fistfuls of money by saving the planet, so what's the incentive to bother?
Unfettered capitalism will only ever fuck us all over in the end.
To be clear, I’m not saying that if we let the Bernie Bros have their way everything will be magically solved.
I’m saying that we as consumers can’t solve this on our own by giving up our straws and our plastic bags and whatever other small bits of bullshit we decide to wage war against. And I’m also saying that asking consumers to regulate the behavior of corporations massively displaces the responsibility for cleaning up this mess onto the people who are most unable to do fuckall about it.
Fuck banning straws. Fuck patting ourselves on the back and sitting on our laurels because we stopped a minuscule amount of plastic from going into the ocean.
Ban corporate greed. Dismantle the capitalist system. Eat the rich.
Ok, fine. Vote, then. Elect a government that gives a shit and demand it put fetters on capitalism. There are people and corporations that have the power to make real meaningful changes for the environment — manufacturing regulations, investment in clean, renewable energy, comprehensive recycling programs, etc. Hold multi-billion dollar manufacturing corporations at least as accountable for doing their part as you and I.
And let me know if you decide you're ready for the revolution.