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The idea of banning plastic straws as a means to reduce pollution has become an unexpected flashpoint of political debate in recent years. The conversation was reignited Wednesday during CNN's climate town hall with Democratic presidential candidates when Sen. Kamala Harris said she's in favor of banning them.
"We do need to ban the plastic ones," Harris said, adding that the country should "encourage innovation" in finding alternatives.
Cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C., have prohibited the use of plastic straws. Several companies — including Disney, Starbucks and American Airlines — have announced plans to stop using them as well.
Why there's debate:
Supporters of straw bans say they are a simple step that can help reduce the massive amount of plastic waste in our oceans that can be harmful to marine life. Advocates also see the bans as a first step in a campaign to reduce single-use plastics and a means to compel consumers to think critically about the environmental impact of their buying decisions.
The bans have been criticized by environmentalists as coming up well short of what's needed to combat pollution, since straws make up only a tiny percentage of the detritus in the ocean. Focusing on small items like plastic straws, some argue, distracts us from addressing the more significant sources of pollution. "This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry wants us to talk about," Sen. Elizabeth Warren said during Wednesday's town hall.
Others say the bans are discriminatory against people with certain disabilities, who may not be able to use alternatives like metal or paper straws.
The bans are seen by some on the right as a cause championed by overzealous progressives. Defiant use of plastic straws has become a popular political statement among prominent conservatives, including the president.
The campaign to reduce plastic waste has begun to move beyond straws. A number of states have banned plastic shopping bags. Several major hotel companies have announced they will stop using individual shampoo bottles. California's state legislature is considering a series of bills that would phase out single-use plastics entirely by 2030.
Banning plastic straws would be a symbolic gesture toward a greener future.
"This isn’t about straws, it’s about whether Americans are willing to evolve into better stewards of the natural world — or instead treat that very idea with contempt." — Miyoko Sakashita, The Hill
Plastic straws make up a tiny percentage of the waste in the ocean.
"There’s no doubt plastic pollution is a major environmental threat. But there’s also no doubt straws barely contribute to the massive plastic blobs gathering in our oceans." — David Whitley, Orlando Sentinel
The bans discriminate against people with disabilities.
"People with a huge range of disabilities depend on plastic straws to access beverages and the very water they need to survive. … For so many people with disabilities, something as mundane as a straw represents independence and freedom." — Karin Hitselberger, Washington Post
Making straws available only by request is a better solution.
"Making plastic straws available only upon request will make a massive dent in the amount of plastic waste restaurants across the country produce. It will also demonstrate to new activists and environmental consumers that their voices matter, and they have the power to push for even larger reductions in plastic waste." — Juliana Britto Schwartz, Newsweek
Outright bans unnecessarily turn the issue into a heated political flashpoint.
"Consumers are also more likely to accept change, whether it concerns light bulbs or straws, when the heavy hand of the Nanny State isn’t involved. Government bans tend to generate hoarding, public backlash and culture war mutterings about having to pry straws from cold, dead lips. " — Editorial, USA Today
A straw ban is too small to have much impact.
"If we want to stop covering the Earth in discarded plastic trash before the end of the century, we’re going to have to stop addressing the problem with minuscule, penny-ante policies." — Editorial, Los Angeles Times
Taxing plastics has been proved to effectively limit how much they're used.
"Economics offers a straightforward answer: instead of banning single-use plastics, the right strategy is to tax them. Taxes force people to pay — or in econ-speak, internalize — their own environmental costs. This tends to lead people to change their behavior." — Scott Duke Kominers, Bloomberg
Straw bans are part of a broken liberal environmental agenda.
"Paper straws that turn to mush before you can finish your drink are a perfect symbol for failed leftist ideas. A quick examination of the claims about plastic straws reveals the intellectual mush that’s behind so many of the left’s short-sighted and foolish nanny-state proposals." — Angela Logomasini, Washington Examiner
Arguing over straws lets the true polluters avoid accountability.
"[Elizabeth] Warren’s response speaks to how the fossil fuel industry and other corporate giants are eager to shift the framing of subjects like lightbulbs and paper straws, in order to put the focus on consumer choice and deflect from the larger issue of reducing pollution." — Li Zhou, Vox
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: Getty Images