The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Seattle's Plastic Straw Ban is Unnecessary and Counterproductive

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


On July 1, 2018, plastic straws will be banned in Seattle.  No more will children be able to use the straw included with their juice box; no more will a couple on a date be able to order one drink with two plastic straws; you’ll have to navigate the ice in that vodka on the rocks without the benefit of a plastic straw.

Plastic utensils will be banned as well.  Houses of worship, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens will be prohibited from providing plastic forks, spoons, and knives for the people they serve. 

This ban has been ten years in the making, but for ten years restaurants and bars kept receiving extensions, because, in the words of one local reporter, “there just wasn’t a suitable replacement or alternative.”  Apparently, the city has determined that July 1 is the date when such alternatives, finally, will present themselves.

Local bans on plastic products—Seattle has already banned plastic bags—are among the most insidious examples of government overreach and are often highly counterproductive. 

The concern most often cited is the problem of pollution.  But plastic pollution represents only a small fraction of all litter, and plastic straws comprise only a small fraction of plastic.  A Bloomberg estimate suggests that if every single plastic straw discarded on a beach were swept into the sea all at once, those straws would represent 0.3 percent of all ocean plastic pollution in a year.  If cities want to attack pollution, there are far more meaningful efforts that could be undertaken.  Of plastic waste that moves from land to ocean, the United States accounts for only 0.9 percent worldwide, according to the International Solid Waste Association.  The top five offenders are China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka, which together account for 54.5 percent of mismanaged plastic waste globally.  The problem is not in Seattle. 

Environmentalists concerned about plastic straws and utensils must consider not only what happens after one is used but also the relative strain on resources during the production and distribution process.  The manufacturing process for many plastic products is enormously efficient and requires much less energy than for corresponding paper products. 

Unlike utensils made of paper, plastic utensils can cut food effectively.  Plastic straws do not dissolve in liquid like flimsy paper straws.  Metal straws cause chipped teeth; plastic straws do not.  There is a sound basis for plastic’s popularity with consumers. 

Every parent can probably joke about the time a child tried to drink something without a straw—and the roll of paper towels it took to clean up the spill (not to mention the increased dry cleaning and laundering that used more energy).  Through its ban of plastic straws and utensils, Seattle is ensuring more parents will have this story to joke about.  On a citywide scale, it all adds up.  Seattle’s ban on these plastic products is unnecessary and counterproductive.

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