Bad straw stats, having made regular appearances in government press releases, environmentalist literature, and mainstream media reports, have now had their prime-time TV debut. On Sunday, the show Shark Tank returned for a 10th season of billionaire investors entertaining pitches from entrepreneurs and inventors, including one from the reusable straw startup Final Straw.
At $25 a pop, Final Straw’s collapsible metal drinking straw is a tough sell, both to the sharks whose capital they were courting and to consumers who can (outside Seattle) get straws for free at most any restaurant they patronize. So to make a case for their product, co-founders Miles Pepper and Emma Rose Cohen had to lean heavily on some questionable statistics.
“Our oceans are filling up with plastic trash. Much of that trash is made of a seemingly harmless item, the plastic straw. Straws may not seem like a big deal to you but they are one of the top items littering our beaches,” said Cohen. A woman in a mermaid costume then entered. She was afraid of the sharks in the room, she said, but she was “more freaked out by the 500 million straws a day we use in the U.S.” This stunt was followed by some 5,900 straws raining from the ceiling, used to illustrate just how many straws we as a country allegedly use every second.
As television, it was pretty entertaining. But its accuracy left something to be desired. Let’s start with Cohen’s assertion that straws are “one of the top items littering our beaches.” This is true in the most perfunctory sense.
Take California, where preliminary data from that state’s 2017 coastal clean-up found that straws and stirrers combined the fourth most common item to be picked up by volunteers. That would qualify them as a “top” item, but ignores the fact that these straws make up only 2.56 percent of waste collected by during California’s coastal clean-up. That’s by item, mind you. Assuming an industry standard of .42 grams per straw, straws are about .01 percent of all waste collected on California’s beaches by weight.
But that’s a comparatively minor quibble. The bigger issue is that claim that Americans consume 500 million straws a day. This stat, we know now, was produced by a 9-year-old boy; more reliably estimates put straw consumption at 175 million per day.
Far from just a throwaway line, this bogus figure is at the core of Final Straw’s marketing. Besides providing the number of straws they dropped from the ceiling on Shark Tank, it’s the source of Final Straw’s claim that Americans use enough straws per day to wrap around the world 2.5 times, a claim cited on the five single-use “Ambassador Cards” the company sends you with each order. (Customers are supposed to leave them with the bill at restaurants still bold enough to use plastic straws.)
Ultimately, none of the sharks chose to invest in Final Straw, citing the limited appeal of such an expensive item. Nevertheless, each one took the time to praise the company’s founders for their important mission.
Yet Final Straw’s mission boils down to snazzy marketing of a gimmicky product. The truth is the problem of marine plastic pollution is not going to be solved by converting straws from a cheap mass-market product to a bourgie luxury. Nor will it be solved by municipal bans in countries that are responsible for a tiny fraction of the plastic getting into the ocean each year. What’s needed are better waste management systems in the poor, populous, coastal countries of Asia and Africa, where most marine plastic pollution is produced.
That’s admittedly a harder issue to tackle, and an even harder one to craft a sexy marketing campaign around. That may be why it gets so little attention from the entrepreneurs, activists, and politicians who claim to be interested in the problem.