A really terse announcement by Marquette: “Marquette Dining Services retail locations (e.g., Marquette Place, Brew cafes) are phasing out plastic straws and transitioning to eco-friendly paper straws.”

The announcement seems to say nothing about the three traditional dorm dining halls on campus.

This, of course, is yet another example of virtue signaling that just inconveniences people and does nothing significant for the environment.

What is, supposedly, the environmental problem with plastic straws? NBC is typical when it explains that:

Activists are pressuring businesses to ditch plastic straws because they can end up in the ocean and hurt marine life.

And just how will plastic straws at Marquette end up in the ocean and hurt marine life?

Do Marquette students, when their finish their soda, run down to Lake Michigan and throw the straw in? Really?

Straws go in the trash, and then go into landfills. Yes, environmentalists hate landfills, but they are in fact pretty benign, and certainly no threat to marine life.

Then what is the basis of the “marine life” claim? Christian Britschgi of Reason explains:

Pictures of turtles with straws up their noses are certainly jarring. However most plastic, whatever form it enters the ocean as, will eventually be broken up into much smaller pieces known as micro-plastics. It is these micro-plastics that form those giant ocean garbage patches, pile up on the ocean floor, and leech into the stomachs and flesh of sea creatures.

Reducing the amount of micro-plastics in the ocean thus requires cutting down on the aggregate weight of plastics entering the ocean each year. It cannot be stressed enough that straws, by weight, are a tiny portion of this plastic.

At most, straws account for about 2,000 tons of the 9 million tons of plastic that are estimated to enter the ocean each year . . . —.02 percent of all plastic waste.

This figure is derived from data here:

. . . a ban may be a bit of a straw man in the discussions about plastics pollution. Straws make up about 4 percent of the plastic trash by piece, but far less by weight.

Straws on average weigh so little—about one sixty-seventh of an ounce or .42 grams—that all those billions of straws add up to only about 2,000 tons of the nearly 9 million tons of plastic waste that yearly hits the waters.

Back to Britschgi:

The pollution problem posed by straws looks even smaller when considering that the United States is responsible for about one percent of plastic waste entering the oceans, with straws being a smaller percentage still.

As countless experts have stressed, truly addressing the problem of marine plastic pollution will require going after the source of this pollution, namely all the uncollected litter from poorer coastal countries that lack developed waste management systems.

A scholarly treatment in the journal Science lists the twenty countries that put the most waste plastic in the oceans. The United States barely makes the list, putting an estimated 0.04–0.11 million metric tons of plastic per year. This is all plastics, not just straws. As we have seen, straws are a tiny proportion.  And this compares to 1.32–3.53 million metric tons from China.

The U.S. only makes the list by being large and rich, with a lot of people consuming all sorts of things. All the other countries on the list are poorer countries, with a much higher level of mismanaged waste.

Which raises the question: what happens when a Marquette student puts a plastic straw in the trash? Does the firm that handles Marquette’s solid waste take it and dump it into Lake Michigan? Or perhaps into the Wisconsin River? If they do, that’s a vastly bigger problem than plastic straws. If they don’t, the ban on plastic straws will have zero effect on plastic in the oceans.

Britschgi concludes:

Straw banners have proven stubbornly resistant to this logic. Instead, they have chosen to rely on either debunked statistics (such as the claim that Americans use 500 million straws a day, which was the product of a 9-year-old’s research) or totally unproven notions (like the theory that straws are a “gateway plastic”) in order to justify petty prohibitions on innocuous straws. And they have been helped along by an uncritical media.

The simple fact about environmentalists is that they are busy-bodies, wanting to control people’s behavior. They are also adverse to any sort of sophisticated analysis, latching onto simple-minded crusades (anti-fracking, anti-nuclear, anti-Keystone pipeline).

A university ought not pander to such people, but rather insist that environmental issues be discussed and analyzed. But such is anathema to social justice warriors, who might find that some of their crusades are a bad idea, or that improving the environment might require them to make sacrifices they don’t want to make.

In a university intent on pandering to every fad of the social justice warriors, they will never be challenged. Which means they will never be educated.

[avatar user=”John McAdams” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” /]John McAdams has a Ph.D. degree in Political Science from Harvard University, and is Associate Professor of Political Science at Marquette University. This first appeared on McAdams’ Marquette Warrior blog.

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