She didn’t see it coming. McDonald’s employee Yasmine James was stunned when a customer screamed at her because there were no straws on the condiment bar. Daniel Willis Taylor went into a full meltdown in the St. Petersburg Florida restaurant as James tried to tell him the straws were removed because of a city ordinance. The incident happened just after the first of the year, months after the St. Petersburg City Council passed the new ordinance banning the city’s restaurants from putting out the straws. The enraged Taylor was too furious to hear the 23-year-old restaurant worker’s explanation. Instead, he responded by reaching across the counter and forcefully grabbing her. His mistake. James used her boxing training to break his hold, saying afterward, “I didn’t know if he had a gun or knife or what.”
The incident, captured on video, went viral. Clearly this was a disturbed individual, but I also saw it as an example — albeit, an extreme one — of America’s fierce loyalty to plastic straws. There’s a reason 500 million plastic straws are used every single day in the U.S. But the video also made me think about my own use of plastic straws. How many did I mindlessly reach for, even though I knew most of the one-use utensils end up in landfills, where they don’t degrade, and in lakes, rivers, and oceans, where fish choke on the particles. Somehow, I can’t bring myself to compost, but giving up plastic straws is something I can do. I started by just switching to paper straws, even though, let’s face it, they don’t have the same strength or suction power. But my commitment paid off. I don’t even miss plastic straws. And I now keep glass straws for my office cup and keep a fold-up metal straw in my bag when I travel. Just that quickly, I become part of the movement to stop plastic pollution.
That movement has slowly taken hold, with consumers looking for ways to reduce or eliminate the use of everyday plastic products — plastic straws chief among them. California was the first state to institute a plastic straw ban. And now Massachusetts lawmakers are proposing a bill just like California’s, which bans restaurants from offering plastic straws unless “requested by a consumer or selected by the consumer from a self-service dispenser.” If Daniel Taylor hadn’t screamed and grabbed Yasmine James, he would have found out that the St. Petersburg ordinance also made exceptions for customers requesting a plastic straw. By the way, he was arrested and charged with battery, spent 60 days in jail and paid a $1,000 fine.
Meanwhile, some corporations are also moving away from plastic straws. Starbucks is instead offering a nitro lid, a kind of straw-less sippy cup. Marriott has pledged to phase them out by 2020, and American Airlines, too, is voluntarily removing them.
Critics say while these are all worthy efforts, it won’t result in a measurable difference. After all, 8 million metric tons of plastic every year are dumped in the oceans. The Coastal Care website says that’s “equivalent to 5 grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world.” Still, I urge state lawmakers to lead in the nationwide plastic straw ban by pushing the ban bill forward. At the very least, we can do our part to slow the daily buildup of plastic pollution. And to those of you who say whatever the state could do collectively will be a futile effort, I refer you to the words of explorer Robert Swan. He says simply, “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”