On the Money

How straws go from your cup to becoming a 'really big' environmental problem

Key Points
  • More big companies are moving to ban plastic drinking straws, in order to save the environment.
  • However, environmentally-friendly alternatives are more costly.
Pulling straws

Do you feel slightly guilty when you add a straw to a cold drink?

Single use plastic straws are a small thing that’s stirred up a big controversy, mainly because of its impact on the environment. It’s prompted a growing number of major companies to abandon something that’s almost iconic in American dining culture.

On July 1st, Seattle’s became the largest city thus far to ban plastic straws, joining individual municipalities in Florida, New Jersey and California to already have straw bans.

And just last week, Starbucks announced they’d eliminate all plastic straws by 2020. Other companies, like hotel chains Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt, to air carriers such as American Airlines and Alaska Airlines, are also planning to phase out disposable straws.

“I think the focus on straws has evolved because it’s something we don’t need, most of us, in our daily life, so it’s an easy thing to eliminate,” Ayana Elizabeth Johnson told CNBC’s On The Money in an interview recently.

“Straws are one of top five items found in beach cleanup, so they are still a really big issue,” said Johnson, a marine biologist and founder of Ocean Collectiv, an organization that works for sustainability.

Straws are “a really big part of pollution, especially what ends up in the ocean,” she said, adding that proposed straw bans are “a great way to start a conversation about single use plastics, in general because we’re using one million plastic water bottles every minute.”

Beyond water bottles and straws, according to advocacy group 5 Gyres, the other largest sources of single use plastic are said to be plastic bags, to-go containers and to-go cups.

As momentum to expand straw bans builds, advocates for people with disabilities explained single use straws aren’t just a convenience—they’re virtually required for many who’d otherwise be unable to drink beverages.

“It’s an issue I’ve been recently learning about,” Johnson told CNBC, and explained there are ways to address that concern.

“New York is considering a ban on disposable straws that that would include an exemption for anyone who needs one, and requests one because of a disability,” Johnson said. “So I think you could still get rid of 99.9 percent, so there’s no reason to make that something that is a burden to the disability community.”

For others, plastic straw alternatives are out there, but the eco-friendly options come at a higher price.

Disposable plastic straws cost less than a penny. Yet compostable plastic straws, which are biodegradable and plant-based, cost about 4 cents apiece. Meanwhile, paper straws are about 6 cents each, while reusable glass straws cost between 50 and 60 cents.

The great straw debate

Johnson suggested that beyond carrying and refilling a water bottle, there’s another action consumers can take to reduce their personal plastics use.

“Choosing natural fabrics is actually another important one. Because every time we wash a fleece or our Spandex, millions of little bits of plastic, because that’s made from plastic end up in the water,” she said.

She explained a recent study found that “300 million microfibers of plastic a day end up just in Hudson River alone….washing out to the Atlantic.”

As more straws and other plastic pollution gets into our oceans, Johnson said that trend could have an alarming result.

“We’re on track, if we keep polluting as we are, to have more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050,” she told CNBC.

On the Money airs on CNBC Saturday at 5:30 am ET, or check listings for air times in local markets.