No, YOU skip the straw. OR: I have mixed feelings about the 0-waste movement

Every time I go to a big-chain coffee store I make sure to pointedly ask for my coffee “for here, in a mug” while making eye contact with the cashier and miming hold a mug. Even with all this emphasis, about every one time in twenty I get handed a disposable coffee cup. At this point I’m torn: that cup is going in the trash no matter what I do now; but I do dislike the experience of drinking from a disposable coffee cup. I usually end up asking the barista to pour it into a mug for me.

On a recent flight from Portland, I was trying to choose a drink that was the least likely to come in a plastic cup. I picked tea, figuring that paper wasn’t great, but better than plastic. The flight attendant gave me a paper cup of hot water and a plastic cup. “I don’t need that,” I said. She said it was for the bag. I might have made more of a fuss if I hadn’t been sleepy and she hadn’t looked so hurried. It was too late anyway: the cup was already on my seat-back tray. For that matter: it was too late anyway because the cup had already been moulded out of plastic and sold to the airline.

The next day I’m at my cafeteria at work, and I see the new “Skip the straw” sign. I wonder how many people ask for their drink without a straw. And then I wonder how many of those requests they actually comply with. And then I wonder how many fewer plastic straws they order from the manufacturer, and how that lower demand for straws affects the manufacturer’s decision on how many straws to make. Because that’s the thing that ultimately matters: how much petroleum gets turned into plastic, and into straws. Or into disposable coffee cup lining. Once it’s made, it’s already a problem: where can it possibly go, ultimately, other than the trash? It doesn’t start being a problem when it gets handed to you by a harried barista who was trained to, by the big-chain coffee company they work for.

“Skip the straw” signs strike me as a way for restaurants to make their plastic products orders from manufacturers your problem. Do they really have plans to stop ordering plastic straws and reducing the demand for them? If not, do they expect anything to happen, other than customers squirming with guilt over “their” carbon footprint? It’s actually the restaurant’s carbon footprint.

This is my complaint about the 0-waste movement: it operates at the individual level. The best an individual can do is decrease the demand for plastic products by 1. Meanwhile, the economy rages on as always, driven by other, busier or less motivated consumers, restaurants and large corporations. As an individual, the best you can do is try to keep “your” hands clean and absolve yourself of guilt. And you’ll spend enormous amounts of time and attention to do it. Time and attention that you could be spending on holding the real culprits to account.

Even so, I found that my 0-waste experiment had advantages, and it might for others too. Some reasons to give it a try are:

  • Understanding the difficulties and use-cases of attempting 0-waste enables you to design tools and practices for others who may be inclined to do the same. Ideas: apps, reusable containers, tools for cleaning and tracking containers.
  • A few best practices are worth adopting, even if they aren’t foolproof: buying 0-waste produce, making and substituting most packaged food, and composting.
  • Decreasing your dependency on individual companies enables you to boycott them in the future. And that is where the REAL leverage is.
  • Having a heightened sensitivity to waste and an appreciation of the scale of the problem. Get angry. And channel that anger into something that works.

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