Let's Stop Pretending Quitting Straws Will Solve Plastic Pollution

Individual actions can't buy us out of the pollution problem.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dia Mirza and Adrian Grenier have a message for you: It’s easy to beat plastic. They’re part of a bunch of celebrities starring in a new video for World Environment Day — encouraging you, the consumer, to swap out your single-use plastic staples like straws and cutlery to combat the plastics crisis.

Phew! If only I’d realized that we can buy our way out of the problem. Except we can’t.

The key messages that have been put together for World Environment Day do include a call for governments to enact legislation to curb single-use plastics. But the overarching message is directed at individuals: Lead with your wallets.

The problem of perpetuating this individualistic narrative is that it’s not going to get us very far and the plastics crisis we face is immense. Our oceans are blighted by the stuff, it’s in our drinking water (including bottled water), and we could even be breathing it in.

A volunteer shows plastics from a garbage collection on the Atlantic coast in Rota Spain, June 2018.
A volunteer shows plastics from a garbage collection on the Atlantic coast in Rota Spain, June 2018.
Jon Nazca / Reuters

I’m not dismissing individual actions like ordering straw-free drinks at bars, or opting for a reusable water bottle over a cup that’s going in the trash as soon as you’ve used it. I can’t imagine not at least trying to minimize my own plastics footprint, whether it’s lugging home my newly-refilled gallon bottle of washing-up liquid every few months, or buying packaging-free food, clothing and toiletries where possible.

On their own, however, none of these things is enough.

Part of my worry about leaving it up to the individual is that we’re all just guessing at what’s going on out there — and that’s if we haven’t been scared off from doing anything to start with in the face of such a huge challenge. As consumers, we have little idea about how much plastic has been used and discarded along the supply chain, for example. It’s also hard to compare, say, going to a bulk store that sells plastic-free products but requires you to drive some distance versus a more local shop where you may end up taking home some packaged items.

There’s also a time and cost issue. Realistically, I’m not going to start making my own laundry detergents so I can avoid the plastic bottles they come in, and there can be extra costs associated with environmentally friendly products.

My biggest concern with leaving it up to the individual, however, is our limited sense of what needs to be achieved. On their own, taking our own bags to the grocery store or quitting plastic straws, for example, will accomplish little and require very little of us. They could even be detrimental, satisfying a need to have “done our bit” without ever progressing onto bigger, bolder, more effective actions — a kind of “moral licensing” that allays our concerns and stops us doing more and asking more of those in charge.

While the conversation around our environment and our responsibility toward it remains centered on shopping bags and straws, we’re ignoring the balance of power that implies that as “consumers” we must shop sustainably, rather than as “citizens” hold our governments and industries to account to push for real systemic change. Nowhere in World Environment Day 2018’s key messages is there anything about voting for environmentally progressive politicians, for example. Why not?

It’s important to acknowledge that the environment isn’t everyone’s priority – or even most people’s. We shouldn’t expect it to be. In her latest book, Why Good People Do Bad Environmental Things, Wellesley College professor Elizabeth R. DeSombre argues that the best way to collectively change the behavior of large numbers of people is for the change to be structural.

This might mean implementing policy such as a plastic tax that adds a cost to environmentally problematic action, or banning single-use plastics altogether. India has just announced it will “eliminate all single-use plastic in the country by 2022.” There are also incentive-based ways of making better environmental choices easier, such as ensuring recycling is at least as easy as trash disposal.

Kathryn Ravey of Falls Church, Virginia, calls for a plastic bag tax at the People's Climate March in Washington, D.C. in April 2017.
Kathryn Ravey of Falls Church, Virginia, calls for a plastic bag tax at the People's Climate March in Washington, D.C. in April 2017.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

DeSombre isn’t saying people should stop caring about the environment. It’s just that individual actions are too slow, she says, for that to be the only, or even primary, approach to changing widespread behavior.

None of this is about writing off the individual. It’s just about putting things into perspective. We don’t have time to wait. We need progressive policies that shape collective action (and rein in polluting businesses), alongside engaged citizens pushing for change. That’s not something we can buy.

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