Last year, the food service at my college (Bon Appétit) banned all plastic straws on campus and replaced them with paper straws as a step towards campus sustainability. Their decision is a part of a larger national movement to phase out plastic straws. Companies such as Starbucks, Alaska Airlines, and McDonald’s are announcing plans to eliminate plastic straws by next year (A Brief). These companies are responding to the large outcry from activists who are demanding actions against the plastic straws that are harming the oceans. In America alone, 500 million straws are used daily, and a large portion of those are ending up in our oceans (Straw Wars). While I, as a sustainability science major, was happy about this transition, the campus reactions to the change were widespread. One question I heard over and over and often even asked myself as the paper of my straw withered away was, “Does my one straw really matter?”—is this one straw going to make a difference in the long run? Will any of my actions at all ever actually matter or have an impact?
That stream of questions occurs often in my head and to many others around me. With roughly 7.7 billion people in the world, it is easy to feel small and to think that your actions do not really matter on the grander scale. And really, your actions do not matter. As much as I hate to admit it, your one straw means little to nothing.
But your mindset does.
While one straw in itself may not matter, each person using just one straw equates to billions of straws. And while the transition to paper straws, even if it was global, will not solve any large sustainability issues, it is the mindset behind the movement that really means something. Large sustainability problems demand agency—the kind of agency that comes from knowing your straw doesn’t matter but acting sustainable anyway. If everyone believes their actions have no impact, then no actions will equate to the changes required. Conversely, if people see their actions as important, then that is how movements begin and persevere.
Many people also argue that banning all plastic straws globally will not result in large change and that plastic straws are the least of our concerns regarding sustainability. While this is true, it is important to think how small changes can lead and often do lead to bigger and more important ones. The straw ban movement is a small step in an effort by many to eliminate single-use plastics, which are polluting our land and oceans. Even in the smallest way, consumers who are so used to the disposability of our current country might stop and think about why they are getting a paper or reusable straw instead of a plastic one. Those moments of questioning or consideration really matter to sustainability scientists because our major goal is to encourage conscious consumerism and push back against the planned obsolescence that our current society revolves around.
Often, sustainability activists must remind the each other that our fight is a marathon and not a race. Important changes likely will never occur overnight, and it takes many years to see transitions to sustainability in society. But eventually, one straw turns into two straws and then into billions of straws.
“We know that just banning plastic straws will not be enough, but it’s a start. “Maybe you decide today to bring your reusable water bottle or mug with you, or you decide not to buy that cucumber that is wrapped in plastic. Every little bit helps,” says Dune Ives, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Lonely Whale (Plastic Straws Retreat).