Straws, Cigarettes and Coal Mines

The Last Straw: Campaigns for bans of single-use plastics including plastic straws, have gained ground. In Ocotber, in England, plastic straws have been banned. Getty

Lerato Mokate, Contributor

Are plastic straws really the enemy we’ve made them out to be? 

The Government has recently introduced a new ban on plastic straws, cotton buds and drinks stirrers. But is this the win for the climate crisis it appears to be?

The battle to ban plastic straws has been a long one. They’re single use, they don’t biodegrade, and they often end up in the ocean. Once in the ocean they can kill the wildlife that accidentally ingest them, or break down into microplastics so small that we can’t filter them out of drinking water or out of the fish that ends up on supermarket shelves. So the ban is a good thing right? Well unfortunately, it might be a bit more complicated than that. 

Plastic drinking straws are an essential aid for some disabled people. Disability activists have been saying for years that a blanket ban on plastic straws would be disastrous – a complete step back for accessibility. Yes, there are alternatives, but not a single one provides all of the necessary functions of single use plastic straws. Metal conducts heat, making it unsuitable for hot drinks. Silicone is an allergen. Pasta and bamboo are brittle and can break and become choking hazards. Glass isn’t adjustable. And we all know that paper straws keep their structural integrity for all of about 30 seconds. The list goes on.

It’s worth noting that hospitals, bars and restaurants are exempt from the ban so that they can provide straws to those who need them, but this isn’t perfect either. Not banning businesses, the biggest users, means that this ban is targeted at the consumer – you and me – making the impact of the ban incredibly small. And we’ve already seen cases of abelist discrimination where people who require and ask for straws are not being given them, instead having to argue their case just to access essential items. Whilst we do desperately need to tackle our collective addiction to plastic, undermining the work of disability activists and making public spaces less accessible is not, and has never been, the way forward. Plastic straws make up a shockingly small amount of ocean plastic and plastic waste, and the way they’ve been targeted, even in the knowledge of their necessity, is deeply troubling. The vast majority of ocean plastic comes from industrial fishing. We know this. We know that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. So why do we keep trying to change consumer choices that have a much lower environmental impact?

There are a couple of incentives for this. It takes the heat off those 100 companies – it’s why BP brought the concept of the carbon footprint into the hands of individuals. Also, being able to make those more climate conscious personal choices feels good. Buying second hand, or taking that bus helps a lot of us quell the overwhelming climate anxiety we perpetually stew in. But fundamentally it comes down to capitalism. Cutting carbon emissions just isn’t good for profit, and under even the greenest forms of capitalism, profit plays a major part.  US President Trump, leader of the free world, has done precious little in his three years in office to stifle environmental damage. Speaking to Voice of America News in 2018 on the economic consequences of climate change he stated, “I’m not going to put the country out of business trying to maintain certain standards that probably don’t matter,”

In this July 27, 2018 photo, the Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo. From 2018 onwards The Trump administration proposed a major rollback of Obama-era regulations on coal-fired/fossil fuel-generated power plants, “striking at one of the former administration’s legacy programs to rein in climate-changing fossil-fuel emissions. ” (AP Photo/J. David Ake/Steve Baragona/Peter Donnelly)

Let’s take a look at another consumer used ocean polluter: cigarette butts. Cigarette filters are plastic. They’re single use, they don’t biodegrade, and they often end up in the ocean. Once in the ocean they can kill the wildlife that accidentally ingest them, or break down into microplastics so small that we can’t filter them out of drinking water or out of the fish that ends up on supermarket shelves. Sound familiar? They’re one of the most common forms of litter found anywhere, they’re on most beaches, and they leech harmful toxins into the water. Yet getting any sort of ban on cigarettes would be very hard indeed. The government rakes in a huge amount of tax from tobacco sales – £9.29 billion in 2018/19 to be exact. To put this in context, that’s about 6 times the amount of money put aside for refurbishing further education colleges over the next five years. Any reform to cigarette sales won’t happen because the government profits hugely off tobacco sales. Profit comes before people and profit comes before the environment every time. 

Stopping, or even mitigating, the climate crisis requires action on an international scale that just isn’t compatible with capitalism. Small, mostly ineffective changes, like this ban are little more than a distraction. Of course any reduction in plastic waste is a net positive, but it’s so far from the scale that we need to be working on. We need massive, immediate divestment from fossil fuels; a wildly profitable sector with some incredibly powerful people controlling it. People who won’t want to give up that power so easily.

The Ocean Seas: Approximately 8 tonnes of plastic waste and rubbish flow into the World’s Oceans each year. National Geographic/ Donnelly

Calling a ‘climate emergency’ means absolutely nothing when the government is nowhere near the targets they’ve set, and have very recently passed planning to open a new deep coal mine in Cumbria, estimated to emmit 8m tonnes of carbon annually. We can’t trust the government to stop the climate crisis. Historically and currently, they are not committed enough. Between their own conflicts of interest, and a five year election cycle meaning that parties spend a vast amount of time energy and resources into getting elected rather than on legislature, I have very little faith in any government acting effectively on the time scale we require. It is truly up to us, through collective, organised action, to pressure companies to divest from fossil fuels, reduce corporate waste and other harmful practices, and to protect the environment. We need to resist incrementalism and push for the ambitious. No more band-aids for bullet wounds – we just don’t have the time. 

The climate crisis is already here, and it has been for a while. The West is just beginning to really see the effects of increasingly destabilized and dramatic weather patterns. The apocalypse doesn’t come in one big event. We’re already in it. 

Nobody is coming to save us. It’s time to save ourselves.

Editorial Note

The last straw was struck in England earlier in October when plastic straws were banned from businesses including restaurants, fast-food and takeaway premises. For many environmental campaigners and concerned citizens it is a welcome development but one which requires further measures to supplement the foundational ground-work of environmentalism. The fact that Britons use 8.5 million single-use straws per year, will not disappear over night. On my most recent trip to McDonalds (other fast-food outlets are available) I was somewhat reassured to see that the straw which accompanied by medium-sized Coke was not plastic but paper. This is just a small but important part of the fight against environmental ruin. The Plastic Industry, primarily headquartered in the US, has erected nothing short of a brick wall toward moves to ban or even reduce the availability of single-use plastics. Legislators in many US States, such as Wisconsin, Indiana, Arizona and Florida, have succumbed to representations from Plastic Industry leaders to outlaw plastic bag bans. Closer to home Northern Ireland became the first UK region to introduce the 5p levy on most single-use plastic bags. A first for good this time! Last week Sir David Attenborough and Prince William co-sponsored the ‘Earth Shot’ Prize’s launch. What campaigners hope will become the Nobel Prize for Environmentalism, the Prize is open to everyone who can come up with 50 imaginatively formulated solutions in the combat against the World’s most pressing environmental problems. The Prize will make five £1 million awards each year until 2030. Prince William felt it was his “responsibility for future generations.” Sir David Attenborough sees it in similar terms, as a matter of the utmost urgency, if the most unique, awe-inspiring and ultimately life-giving aspects of our World are to be preserved. Over the course of his work as a natural history broadcaster, 94-year old, Sir David was fortunate enought to see some of the great wonders of the World, which he brought to millions of our TV Screens in his worldwide-acclaimed Life and Blue Planet BBC TV series. The fight to save the environment and its wild and human forms of life continues. Peter Donnelly

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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