The Last Straw : The Indicator from Planet Money Starbucks, Ikea, Vancouver, Scotland: They've all banned plastic straws. The movement is meant to help reduce plastic waste in the ocean. But will it work, or will it backfire?
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The Last Straw

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The Last Straw

The Last Straw

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Cardiff, you have brought something into the studio today.


You mean besides my enthusiasm and mellifluous voice? Yes, I have.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: I brought us some Starbucks iced coffee.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, for Clardiff (ph). I see (laughter). Yes. And this is kind of an endangered drink. Not the actual ice coffee part - perish the thought - but this.


VANEK SMITH: The straw. Starbucks announced this week that it will completely phase out straws by the year 2020.

GARCIA: Yeah. And the straw movement has been going on for a while. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has proposed a ban on plastic straws. Vancouver banned them. Scotland, Taiwan have bans in place. Ikea, Caribbean Cruises, Alaska Airlines - no plastic straws.

VANEK SMITH: And this movement is all about cutting back on plastic waste. Plastic gets into our oceans. It's a huge problem. But straws are a relatively minor part of that problem; plastic bottles, plastic bags, plastic wrapping all a much bigger problem in our oceans.

GARCIA: I mean, the straw isn't even, like, the biggest offender in this iced coffee.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: There's a lot more plastic just in the cup, you know? This is THE INDICATOR. I'm Cardiff Garcia.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show, the last straw - why everybody's picking on the humble straw, and how that could really help, and how that could really backfire.


GARCIA: Today's indicator is 500 million. That's the number of straws that we use in the United States every single day. It's kind of mind-blowing when you think about it, especially when you consider another indicator. Straws - they represent 0.03 percent of our total plastic waste. It's a minuscule amount. Dune Ives is the executive director of this pretty small environmental group called Lonely Whale. And this is the group that spearheaded the straw war in the United States last year.

DUNE IVES: When we looked at the plastic straw itself, we realized it's the one thing that connects us every single day to the plastic crisis. So that's where as an organization we landed on the straw.

VANEK SMITH: Lonely Whale was struggling with a thing environmental groups often struggle with. The scope of the problem is enormous. Plastic is in everything. And getting people to act can be really hard because change seems hopeless.

GARCIA: And the straw had a few things going for it. First, we use straws all the time. Dune says between sodas and coffees and cocktails, we just use a lot of straws - about two straws a day for most of us.

VANEK SMITH: Second, straws are visible. You use them in public. It's not like plastic packaging, which you tend to deal with at home. Usually, when you get a straw, you're out at a coffee shop or a restaurant or a bar.

IVES: Our theory was if somebody makes a public commitment or declaration and says, no, thank you to the plastic straw; I don't want a straw in my water today; please don't bring straws to the table, then it gives them an opportunity to have a conversation.

GARCIA: And the shame factor.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, yeah.

GARCIA: If you're getting a coffee with your friend and they refuse a straw, suddenly you feel like kind of a jerk, like you have to refuse a straw, too, or else you'd have to explain yourself.

VANEK SMITH: Also, it's easy to give up a straw. Other things like a plastic bag at the store or a plastic to-go food container - that's more complicated. You have to find an alternative to carry your food or your items. But a straw - I mean, you can still have your iced coffee without a straw.

GARCIA: Can you, though?

VANEK SMITH: I mean, it's not as enjoyable. Let's be honest.

IVES: But it's the one thing where there's an easy-to-implement solution. So let's start with the straw as a gateway plastic.

VANEK SMITH: A gateway plastic.

GARCIA: Lonely Whale launched a social media campaign called - this is great - Stop Sucking...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: ...Where people could challenge each other to hashtag #StopSucking.

VANEK SMITH: Hashtag #StopSucking.

GARCIA: Yeah. And celebrities got involved because who can resist a campaign slogan like that? These celebrities included Ellen Pompeo, aka Meredith Grey from "Grey's Anatomy."


ELLEN POMPEO: I accept your challenge, and I vow never to suck again. So who can I challenge? My other favorite Ellen. Ellen DeGeneres, will you stop sucking?

GARCIA: Dune herself says she was totally blown away by the success of this viral campaign that Lonely Whale had launched. But that alone would not be enough to declare success.

IVES: We needed a cultural icon like Starbucks.

VANEK SMITH: Lonely Whale thought this would do a couple of things. First, if Starbucks doesn't offer straws, no matter what customers do, there are just fewer straws in the world - millions fewer straws. Also, Starbucks is visible. People pay attention to what it does. It could really move the needle. So Lonely Whale started talking to Starbucks. And earlier this week, Starbucks said, OK, no more straws.

IVES: For a company like Starbucks to make the shift away from this iconically branded green straw signals that the company has made a commitment that - many of us don't understand how deep it is.

GARCIA: Straws, the gateway plastic. The general public can get plastic woke - oh, man...

VANEK SMITH: Hashtag plastic woke (laughter).

GARCIA: ...In a minimally inconvenient way. And Starbucks can start looking across all of its products and making everything more environmentally friendly.


GARCIA: Maybe.

VANEK SMITH: That is where things get tricky.

HEATHER BARNES TRUELOVE: Hello, my name is Heather Barnes Truelove. I'm an associate professor of psychology at University of North Florida.

VANEK SMITH: Are you a doctor?


VANEK SMITH: So you're Dr. Truelove?


VANEK SMITH: That's the best thing I have ever heard. That's so awesome.


TRUELOVE: Yeah. My students all call me Dr. Truelove. Yeah. Yeah. In a professional context, I'm Dr. Truelove. Yes.

GARCIA: Well, then we're going to call her Dr. Truelove...

VANEK SMITH: I mean...

GARCIA: ...Also. And Dr. Truelove says that if you are trying to tackle a giant problem like plastic in the oceans, then starting small like with straws can actually cut both ways. And she uses the example of a person's health kick. Like, let's say you decide to get really fit, and you join a gym. Then that night, you go out to eat, and the waiter comes by with the dessert cart. And on it is a delicious piece of cake.

TRUELOVE: And they say no. You know, I can't have this cake. I'm on an exercise kick, right? Like, I exercised today. I'm trying to be very healthy. I want to be consistent in my behavior.

VANEK SMITH: This is called positive spillover. This is what Lonely Whale is counting on. You refuse a straw, and suddenly you're kind of identifying yourself as an environmentalist like, yeah, I'm part of the solution. You start bringing tote bags to the store and metal straws to the coffee shop. And when you buy a car, you buy a Prius.

GARCIA: And this might work for companies, too. So a company like Starbucks can be like, yeah, we care. We're going to start cutting back on plastic use in more ways, not just by cutting back on straws. But, but, but, but...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: ...Right? Things might actually end up breaking a totally different way. Campaigns like Stop Sucking can run into a problem called moral licensing. So go back to that dessert cart. You worked out. You're on this new diet. The cake comes by. It smells so good.

TRUELOVE: You say, oh, yeah. You know, I exercised today. I can totally get the dessert, right? This sort of - the exercise, the good deed that you've done, has licensed you to do sort of a bad thing in eating the cake.

GARCIA: Sign me up for moral licensing.


GARCIA: I want that cake.

VANEK SMITH: No, oh, so many times. In the case of the straw, you think, hey, I did my part for the planet. I eschewed the straw. So I can use a few plastic bags. I can get my food in a Styrofoam container. And, you know, that SUV is looking sharp. A company like Starbucks can say, listen, man; we got rid of straws. We've done our part. Viva la plastic cup. Plastic cups now with more plastic. And suddenly you're living in a world with, yes, fewer straws but more plastic waste, more carbon emissions.

GARCIA: And Dr. Truelove says she and other researchers are working to pinpoint what makes us go in a positive spillover direction versus what makes us go in the moral licensing direction. She says it's really subtle, and we all have both impulses within us. But she does say that in cases like the straw, humans have a slight tendency toward positive spillover - so in the dessert cart example, forgoing the cake because you are on a health kick.

VANEK SMITH: Dr. Truelove says one thing we do know is that in cases like the war on straws, momentum is key. To move the straw victory forward, you've got to immediately, like, declare war on lids or the little stirrers and then plastic bags and then packaging.

GARCIA: Yes. The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single straw.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I will stop sucking.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We will all stop sucking.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Singing) We will all stop sucking.


GARCIA: Very catchy.


GARCIA: But wait a minute. So what is a Starbucks iced coffee going to look like in 2020? Like, are they just going to have no lids?

VANEK SMITH: Well, apparently, the iced coffees will come in a little kind of sippy cup. Or maybe, Cardiff, we'll all just be carrying metal straws to match our silver bodysuits...

GARCIA: I love it.

VANEK SMITH: ...'Cause, you know, it's the future. And one of these days, the silver bodysuit is going to catch on.

GARCIA: Those metal straws can, like, double as a weapon, too.

VANEK SMITH: That's true - multi-use.

[CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this episode, we said that Americans use 500 million straws every day. That number has been cited in many different places, including by the National Park Service. But the data on plastic straw use in the U.S. are hard to pin down. Other estimates have said the number is less but still in the tens or hundreds of millions.]

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