The Trouble with Banning Plastic Straws

By Jacob Friesen

Vancouver is the latest major city to ban plastic drinking straws. The ban will come into effect on June 1st, 2019. Seattle and San Francisco have already banned plastic straws, and New York City is considering a similar policy. Taiwan plans to eliminate the use of single-use straws by 2025. The United Kingdom and the European Union are considering following suit. Major businesses, such as Starbucks, as well as numerous small businesses, have also taken initiative to reduce or eliminate the use of plastic straws in their restaurants.

Plastic waste is definitely a problem. 80 percent of all the rubbish in the oceans is plastic. Almost 9 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the oceans every year. Straws account for 2,000 pounds, or 0.02 percent, of that. As a popular single-use product, a ban on plastic straws may be of marginal benefit to the environment. However, it is worth considering the unintended consequences of plastic straw bans that have been experienced in places which have implemented them.

Two frequently cited unintended consequences of plastic straw bans are the negative consequences they can entail for people with disabilities and for consumers in general. First, people with a variety of disabilities need straws to eat and drink. Banning straws creates one more obstacle for disabled people in the public sphere. While some jurisdictions with plastic straw bans have made exceptions for people with disabilities, disability advocates worry that undue burdens are still inevitably placed on disabled people, making it a little harder for them to live normal lives in comfort and dignity.

Second, many alternatives to plastic straws are problematic. Compostable straws don’t work as well, especially in hot drinks, and can be dangerous for people with severe food allergies. Reusable metal straws can be less comfortable to use, as they can be bracingly cold or hot depending on the beverage, and they are less flexible – which can be a huge issues for some disabled people. Being expected to purchase a reusable straw and carry it around at all times is, further, an example of an unintended burden plastic straw bans can place on disabled people. Additionally, reusable straws can be difficult to clean.

None of this is to say that the unintended consequences of plastic straw bans outweigh the good they do for the environment, or that plastic straw bans are the wrong policy. The bans are implemented with the best of intentions. With increased demand for alternatives to plastic straws, driven partly by the bans and – probably more significantly – by consumer trends favouring environmentally friendly products across the board, there is every reason to expect that better alternatives will be developed and made available. Nevertheless, plastic straw bans illustrate a golden rule of economics and public policy: that every policy comes with unintended consequences.

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