A few weeks ago I asked my teenage daughters where they would like to have dinner. “Anywhere that doesn’t use plastic straws!” they declared. It was a telling moment. Until recently, the main warriors against plastic straws were committed environmentalists – green campaigners have warned for years that single-use plastics cause alarming pollution, since they are ubiquitous and not biodegradable. (It’s estimated that somewhere between 200 million and 500 million plastic straws were used in the US each day in 2017.)
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Plastic straws were so ingrained in consumer culture, particularly in America, that it was hard to imagine that they might ever disappear. Indeed, until 2018, when it announced its aim to get rid of plastic straws in all of its stores by 2020, Starbucks featured plastic green straws that became a familiar part of its brand.
Anti-plastic protests have exploded suddenly. Many cafes, bars and restaurants have committed to replacing the offending plastic with sippy cups and/or paper straws. Trendy joints in New York, such as Juice Press, have gone even further and are now selling reusable metal ones. Municipalities in liberal-voting places ranging from San Diego to Miami Beach are banning the plastic straw.
The issue even surfaced at the most recent debate for the Democratic presidential nominees, where some candidates were grilled about whether they would adopt a national ban (Kamala Harris said she favoured this, even though she admitted that she found paper straws unappealing because they are apt to dissolve).
The issue has become such a cause celebre that it has sparked an inevitable backlash. At the start of the summer Donald Trump decried the straw bans, and his campaign started selling bright red plastic Make America Great Again straws (tagline “Liberal paper straws don’t work”). His devoted base has bought so many of these that it has reportedly raised over US$800,000; welcome to the new cultural straw wars.
What should we make of this? Part of me feels tempted to cheer: Getting rid of single-use plastic is undeniably a good idea. However, I am also tempted to sigh. After all, one reason why straws have captured the public imagination – particularly among Instagram-loving teenagers – is that they fit so easily into our modern cultural definition of a campaign issue. Another reason is that the problem can easily be photographed (check out the pictures of the “plastic berg” of ocean plastic waste, or the horrifying viral video of a turtle with a straw stuck in its nose).
Depending on your response to these images, your tribal identity is readily on display. Most significant of all, the “battle” can be embraced without making too significant a lifestyle change; indeed, if you are a teenager, you can declare war on plastic straws without even needing parental permission.
However, there are many other – more serious – environmental issues facing the world that are not so readily visual and emotive. “Understand [that talking about straws] is exactly what the fossil-fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about,” Elizabeth Warren recently observed during the Democratic debates. “They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your lightbulbs, around your straws and around your cheeseburgers, when 70 per cent of the pollution, of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air, comes from three industries.”
There is another thing that the straw wars clearly show: Consumer sentiment is now able to shift with startling speed, in a manner that businesses are finding it hard to ignore. One sign of this is the rapidity with which groups such as Starbucks have been forced to act; another is the degree to which chemicals companies are facing pressure from shareholders over the issue.
More specifically, these days investors who are affiliated with the so-called “environmental, social and governance” movement are getting more vocal about calling for a plastics rethink; indeed, a recent blog from MSCI, the index group, argued that companies dealing with “conventional virgin plastic” might soon be “the next stranded asset” for investors – in the sense of an investment that could lose its value as regulations change.
Most encouraging of all is that this pressure is also forcing the chemical giants to intensify their hunt for non-plastic alternatives. Hordes of entrepreneurs are jumping in too. “We can all see the rewards here,” one venture capitalist recently told a meeting of financiers, pointing out that the recent success of non-meat protein entrepreneurial groups is sparking a “feeding frenzy of interest in looking for the next green thing”. Government policy change is being amplified by the profit motive.
So cheer – or sneer – at the straw wars but also note the degree to which shifts in public sentiment are causing real business dislocations. And then ask yourself: If attitudes towards plastic straws have changed so fast, what might be the next big campaigning flashpoints? Sometimes symbolism does pack a financial punch; even when it comes from a pouty teenager.
By Gillian Tett © 2019 The Financial Times