My husband and I sat down in a booth at our local sports bar yesterday, both craving a burger and, for once, hungry enough to ignore the calorie count. And there, nestled in between little salt and pepper shakers and an unfortunately low bottle of Heinz ketchup, sat a plain table topper that read, in large bold lettering: “Straws Suck.”
The unobtrusive little sign included a quick blurb about plastic drinking straws, namely that they’re made of plastic that doesn’t break down when dumped into the ocean or landfills. The short message wrapped up with a promise that your server would be happy to deliver you a straw, but only upon request.
Unlike plastic grocery bags (which are restricted state-wide), restaurants in San Diego aren’t legally banned from handing out straws – yet. Instead, these restaurant owners have chosen, of their own free will, to remind customers of the environmental impact of using plastic, stating upfront that they'll only provide straws when asked.
It’s an approach that I can fully get behind.
As a Millennial, I’ll freely admit that I haven’t always been the most cognizant preserver of the environment. For the majority of my childhood and young adult years, recycling was something I did when the little blue bin was placed conveniently nearby. Otherwise, that empty milk carton went straight into the garbage can.
Today, my family recycles far more than we throw away. Our trash is relegated largely to food scraps and stuff that can’t be repurposed; everything else goes in our separate, larger recycling can. I rinse paper plates so salvaging companies can repurpose them. I pick up trash on the beach. I take the time to break down irritatingly large items if it means their parts can be reused. I even switched my sunscreen when I learned chemicals from most store-bought brands may be bleaching coral beds in Hawaii – even before the state banned them by law.
Why? Because these were easy changes, and I could make them.
Part of my shift in view has come from talking with friends who’ve worked on conservation projects. Part of it has come from educating myself on the environment and the undeniable impact we have on it. A large part comes from a deepening understanding that, as a Christian, God has gifted me with his amazing, astonishingly beautiful creation and entrusted me to care for it.
But none of it has come from a government mandate.
It’s true that straws make up a tiny percentage of all plastic pollution – about 4 percent of all plastic waste, and only 0.02 percent of plastic that gets dumped into the ocean, in fact. It's true that the United States is hardly the greatest offender of pollutants in the world (we sit stunningly far behind China and a great many other coastal nations in that regard). And it's true that plastics, along with a great many other eco-unfriendly materials, are necessary to modern human existence.
It’s also true that the prevalence of trash in our oceans and waterways still poses a well-documented risk to marine life, our drinking water, and the global ecosystem. Because even at 0.02 percent, improperly discarded straws are still just that – a pollutant.
Now, enter Santa Barbara, who tried to take this notion about a hundred carbon footprints too far. Under threat of up to six months in jail and $1,000 in fines per offense, this California city proposed mandating that waiters refrain from offering customers straws unless asked. San Francisco's may be next - in fact, the entire state of California is moving to ban straws statewide. Forget avoiding plastic because you care about the sea turtles – now, you must do it because the government says so, and has threatened to physically imprison you if you don’t.
Immediately, social media lit up with scores of nose-thumbers (myself included) vowing to stand outside California restaurants handing out contraband straws and snapping photos of themselves holding handfuls of plastic next to “Welcome to California!” signs – all facetiously absurd responses to an equally absurd, yet not at all facetious, law.
At the heart of this face-off lies the underlying heartbeat of conservatism: the notion that there’s a huge difference between recognizing a problem and making a change, and being forced to change. For which is bound to be more beneficial and long-lasting: an educated society that preserves the environment out of genuine concern, knowledge and desire? Or one made to involuntarily tow a line under threat of punishment from a bloated, power-hungry government with its own terrible environmental track record?
Believe it or not, it is possible, even in our polarized society, to hold two thoughts in one’s head at the same time: that the environment is worth the extra effort to preserve, and that preserving it is not the government’s job. And I’d wager my local restaurant’s voluntarily-placed table topper will inevitably prove far more effective than threatening to jail waiters.