Editor’s Column: Strawgate

As long as the clock is ticking, the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other. Politics are no exception. Whichever side takes power, there’s a reaction from the other side. It’s almost always a lot of drama without a lot of substance.

Take, for example, the latest bit of legislation to appear (and disappear) at the state level: a bill to limit the use of plastic straws at Colorado restaurants. Similar legislation has been passed in California, Seattle and Washington, D.C. The heart of the legislation is a desire to reduce the amount of plastic waste and litter. Plastic straws won’t decompose for centuries, as any parent who has ever cleaned under the seats in a minivan can testify. Reports of harm to sea life, particularly turtles, reportedly prompted the move to ban plastic straws, or at least not hand them out unless a customer requests one.

I don’t know anyone, asked point-blank, who would say reducing the amount of trash that ends up on the ground is a bad idea. Who likes litter? And I doubt anyone—regardless of political persuasion—likes the idea of harming sea life. At least I hope that’s the case.

Here’s my question: Have we become so foolish (and unable to communicate with each other) that we have to legislate something as trivial as the use of straws? Can we not simply educate humanity about the potential waste and harm caused by the estimated 500 million plastic straws U.S. citizens use every year and trust each other to use common sense and wisdom to make better choices? Apparently not.

There are, by the way, multiple alternatives to plastic straws: stainless steel, bamboo, paper, even glass straws, are readily available for purchase online. Glass straws seem scary (who hasn’t accidentally rammed a straw up their nose or into their soft palate?). Paper straws make things taste weird (though paper straws were the precursor to our modern plastic straws). I don’t know about bamboo straws. Stainless steel straws, if we all adopted them tomorrow, might boost our nation’s steel industry. Purchased online they come with cleaning brushes. Maybe that’s why we don’t like the idea. You don’t have to clean a disposable straw.

Comparing our national development to raising children, I feel like we’ve reached that phase of parenting where inordinate amounts of time are spent listening to our children tattle on one another about who touched whom and demanding that we make new house rules to prevent future intrusions of personal space. It doesn’t take long to realize that making more rules solves nothing, and generally ends up creating more problems. Those knee-jerk reaction house rules are rarely enforceable or sustainable.

That’s not to say we don’t need laws. Legitimate legislation obviously serves a purpose. However, no matter how hard you try, you can’t legislate morality or common sense (another truth most parents eventually learn the hard way). What’s the alternative? Education. Information. Communication. Explanation. Options. Compromise. More communication.

Starbucks has said it will eliminate plastic straws by 2020. You know who will be the first people to adapt to straw alternatives? Starbucks addicts willing to endure any change of habit as long as they get their fix.

The straw ban—which died in committee in Colorado—is among the most trivial of proposed legislation so far this year. It’s also a reminder. Legislation should be a last resort, not a first response. Legislation will always produce rebellion on some level—if any country should understand that it’s this one…remember the Boston Tea Party?—whereas communication and education, presented fairly and openly, can change behavior without requiring yet another law on the books.

By Niki Turner | niki@ht1885.com