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London Restaurants Shame Drinkers Into Saying No to Plastic Straws

If businesses are going to promote more sustainable choices, they should promote choices that matter.

Green consumers do not drink from disposable plastic bottles. They do not use styrofoam cups. They eschew foam packaging. They refuse disposable chopsticks. They certainly do not accept plastic bags at grocery stores. And if a group of London restaurants succeeds in what one local merchant called “a very ambitious project,” they will not drink from disposable plastic straws.

The restaurants’ Straw Wars campaign aims to reduce waste by pushing back on the use of cheap plastic drinking straws. “Don’t be a sucker,” the campaign admonishes. In the United Kingdom, the campaign’s website points out, 3.5 million people buy a McDonald’s drink with a straw in it every day. That is a lot of straws, which tend not to be recycled and instead make their way to the ocean with so much other single-use plastic. The campaign asks restaurant and bar owners to respond by handing out straws only when asked.

But as The Guardian wrote in its report on the Straw Wars campaign, “There are no figures for the proportion that plastic straws make up as a proportion of total plastic waste, though it is thought to be very small.”

In aggregate, the personal environmental choices that we all make do have an impact. But some have a bigger impact than others. On the scale of choices that make a difference, saying no to drinking straws ranks low. If restaurants and bars are going to join together to promote environmental awareness, I’m much more interested in the efforts they’re making to minimize the energy they use for transportation and their physical space than the tiny, tiny energy and waste savings they achieve by holding back some of the plastic straws they normally dispense.

Although it’s well-intentioned, this campaign, for me, is the last straw (so to speak) in the mounting pile of fatuous green campaigns. If other guilt-driven bans are any indication, I can predict what will follow. Rather than accept disposable straws, consumers will learn to carry around a sustainable straw for multiple uses—just 1,000 drinks or so and the sustainable straw will out-green its disposable competitors. The most common brand will be made from bamboo. Luxury brands might mimic the first straw ever discovered—a tube made from gold and studded with lapis lazuli. Hip, retro bars will revive the 19th century practice of sipping whiskey through rye grass. Sustainability bonus: Rye grass is compostable. Some enterprising designer will design a system in which the rye straws will be brewed into an ethanol that powers the bar’s back kitchen.

This isn’t to say that sipping whiskey from rye straws isn’t a fine pursuit. (I’d be surprised if some farm-to-table restaurant hasn’t revived the practice already.) But smart consumers know that the truly sustainable choices are the ones that would have the largest impact if everyone made them—living in smaller spaces, using less energy to heat and cool those spaces, eating less meat, and using less gas to get around.

Fine, say no to the straw. But demand bigger changes, too.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Artnow314

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