Since San Francisco and other cities banned single-use consumer plasticware, food businesses — restaurants, grocery stores, cafes — have been experimenting with alternatives to the previously ubiquitous plastic straw. Soon, plastic straws will become a faint memory, like Tab soda, VHS rewinders and floppy disks, a remnant of an unenlightened past that we’ll laugh about once we’ve defeated global warming and saved all of the animals from choking to death on our refuse.
To discover which types of straw are best, and what plastic alternatives the future may hold, we tried as many of them as we could find. We combed the city for options: paper straws, stainless steel straws, hay straws, bamboo straws, unidentified Ukrainian “plant stem” straws and even candy straws.
I’ll spare you the minutiae of the taste test here. Ranking them would be a fool’s errand, because they were all terrible.
The whole burgeoning industry just makes no sense: Why replace plastic straws with inferior products when the majority of people don’t need straws at all? Why force the people who actually need straws into using alternatives that at best, taste bad and at worst, are not even functional?
The answer seems straightforward enough. In an age of climate change (and the general malaise of climate grief), a behavioral shift that feels like it’s doing something significant to chip away at our collective guilt feels empowering. Single-use plastics, which persist long after we dispose of them, are undoubtedly a source of pollutants.
Plastic straws might seem unnecessary to much of the population, but that’s not the case for people with mobility or strength issues, like those with muscular dystrophy or paralysis. How do you drink without spilling liquid all over your shirt if you can’t lift a cup? What can you do if you forget your reusable straw or the equipment necessary to sanitize it? For many people in these situations, plastic straws offer a degree of independence and improvisation that make the basic task of hydration more manageable.
Though this is certainly an outlier, post-plastic straws have already claimed their first victim: Elena Struthers-Gardner, 60, a British disabled woman. She fell while holding a cup with a metal straw sticking out of it, which went through her eye socket and caused a traumatic brain injury. More common is the fear of chipping one’s teeth on a metal straw. Some metal straw manufacturers include a silicon mouthpiece to avoid that complication, but most do not.
Disability activists have long questioned the primacy of plastic straws as the rallying point for contemporary environmentalism. In a 2017 essay for Catalyst, a feminist tech journal, San Francisco’s Alice Wong wrote that “the entire conversation about plastic straws is about power: who knows best, who decides how change is made, who is centered in all of these activities.” Just because you don’t need them doesn’t mean no one does.
The idea that you can help buy your way into a better future, whether through a tote bag or an $8 glass straw, is seductive. Shifting the behaviors of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, like the Chinese coal industry or global petroleum oil corporations, seems like something for other people to deal with. In so many ways, this push echoes so many of the little choices we make as consumers every day to save the world: We choose the “natural” laundry detergent, screw eco-friendly light bulbs into our lamps and wipe with recycled toilet paper. As Americans, we are under the impression that buying things constitutes activism.
It seems clear that the straw debate focuses real concern over climate change and environmental degradation on initiatives that make marginalized people’s lives more difficult, rather than asking for scaled-up sacrifices from the corporations that are actually and continually perpetuating the most harm. The warm and fuzzy feeling some may get from sucking Coca-Cola through paper straws is a trick: It may feel like a change, but it’s just more of the status quo.