The days are numbered for plastic straws at the world's favorite coffee shop. Starbucks announced Monday that it would phase out straws for cold drinks by 2020, instead offering a redesigned lid and more environmentally friendly straw options. This could mean 1 billion fewer plastic straws in landfills, oceans, and trash cans within 18 months.
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It's a major commitment for the company, and not without controversy. Disability rights activists say that plastic straws are instrumental for ensuring independent eating and drinking for people with disabilities and some who are elderly. Some environmentalists point out that targeting plastic straws will not make enough of a dent in the waste products that pollute waterways and harm wildlife. Still others assert that the major culprits in ocean deterioration are still off the hook — namely, the commercial fishing industry.
These conversations can seem hard to navigate, especially when everyone's hearts appear to be in the right place. It's true that more harm comes to the environment from industry than from individual consumers. That said, there's little harm in doing what you can to help, especially if you understand how you contribute to various systems. (One example: Recycling is not as straightforward as we'd all hope, but using reusable utensils or water bottles, for instance, does build a conservation-directed habit.)
Starbucks is hoping to lead the way in sustainability efforts. Maybe by the end of the decade, we really will look at plastic drinking straws as passé and gauche. No matter what, though, it's fine to weigh your commitment to the world around you and your need for convenience and decide from time to time that you can take the easy way out. Individual choices matter, but the environmentalists aren't wrong: It is the big players who need to clean up their act.