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Plastic straws are public enemy number one

Guest Commentary




Seattle is leading the effort to save our planet from ourselves. They have joined Portland and a host of California cities in the battle against plastic drinking straws.

A school boy noticed discarded straws outside fast food outlets and wrote an essay spurring environmentalists into action. The fight has spread from the classroom to city councils and state legislatures across the land.

The first success I noticed was in Portland’s conversion to biodegradable straws. Some mornings I need my coffee to become human, and I frequently drink a latte as I drive.

On that memorable morning, I asked the barista for a straw and was told that they were prohibited from all except environmentally friendly straws. The first sip was fine but the second one came up short, cleared my sinus and bruised my diaphragm. The straw had melted shut in less than 30 seconds! Great for the environment but not so good for my disposition.

I put the offensive straw in my vehicle’s trash bag and tried to drink my latte through the little hole in the lid. Each sip covered my vision making it impossible to see the city bus as it made frequent stops in my lane. After a couple close calls, I gave up and threw my coffee in the trash where it will be hauled off to the landfill along with the cup, lid and friendly straw.

What happened to the paper straws we used before plastic? Last time I checked paper was biodegradable.

I salute the attempt to protect the environment, but think we should start with something more threatening than plastic straws. My wife and I took a bus ride from El Paso to Chihuahua a few years ago and the beauty of the Mexican desert was ruined by miles of plastic grocery bags. There were thousands of them clinging to every cactus as far as I could see.

The campaign for reusable shopping bags seems to have died out. You remember reusable grocery bags. They are the things that accumulate forgotten in the trunk of your car until you are at the checkout counter. When you do remember to bring them, you get a 10 cent credit for each one and a dirty look from the cashier because the checkouts are set up for plastic bags and the reusable ones take longer.

The public could be trained to bring their own bags. All it would take is a better thought out campaign. It worked in Europe.

The last time I was in Germany, I wanted to have a picnic, so I went to the local market for the supplies. At the checkout I was offered neither paper nor plastic. I noticed other shoppers brought their own bags and looked at me as if I were an idiot, so I loaded my pockets with the bread, cheese, wine and salami for my picnic. It didn’t hurt me. The disapproval of our fellow shoppers will do more than a 10 cent rebate to make us remember the reusable bags in our trunk.

Laws meant to protect us from ourselves frequently only make us angry at the lawmakers’ attempt to control our lives. Thus, I think the environmentalists should direct their efforts toward shaping public opinion.

It almost worked with recycling. The TV ads convinced my wife that we needed to be in the forefront of reducing the threat of growing land-fills, so I was recruited to sort our discards into different piles.

Periodically I would haul the accumulation to the recycling center and place each offering in the designated bin where it was checked by volunteers before it was sent to the various buyers. It didn’t hurt me, and I actually felt like I was doing something positive.

A few years later, we were informed that we no longer needed to sort our paper from our plastic. We had advanced to “single stream recycling,” and there was no longer a need for volunteers to make sure our plastic bottles weren’t mixed up with our glass ones. Recently, we were informed that glass bottles were no longer recyclable. Upon inquiry, I discovered the stream system simply bailed everything together and sold it to Asia. If glass is included, the price per bale goes down. It turns out that recycling must pay for itself.

If we are to save the planet from the evils of single use glass and plastic containers, we should be willing to subsidize efforts to reprocess them. When government tries to solve our problems, we quit trying to solve them ourselves.

The public owns the environment, and we are despoiling it with much more than plastic straws. We must own the problem and the solution. There must be a better answer than shipping our discards to Asia.

Frank Watson is a retired Air Force Colonel and long-time resident of Eastern Washington. He has been a free lance columnist for over 19 years.


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