Opinion

Eliminate plastic straws in Tacoma one sip at a time

In this Wednesday, July 11, 2018, photo, Glass Sipper, a glass straw company, co-founder Aimee Promislow holds glass straws at the home-based business she and her husband operate in Vancouver. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
In this Wednesday, July 11, 2018, photo, Glass Sipper, a glass straw company, co-founder Aimee Promislow holds glass straws at the home-based business she and her husband operate in Vancouver. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP) AP

Plastic straws suck. And we don’t mean that literally, in the sense that they provide gravity-defying, human-powered suction from your summer liquid refreshment to your mouth.

We mean it in the colloquial sense, which is far from a compliment, because the daily churn of straws and other throwaway plastics into the waste stream is a clear-and-present danger to the environment.

To nobody’s surprise, Seattle is in the vanguard of cities and companies eliminating single-use straws. The city’s ban on plastic straws and utensils at food-service businesses went into effect this month. Seattle-based Starbucks reacted by announcing it will phase out the straws at all stores, not just in its hometown, by 2020.

The movement aims to quit stuffing our landfills with creature comforts that persist for decades. More pointedly, it aims to quit feeding the global mass of floating debris that harms wildlife through entanglement and ingestion. One academic study found that from 1962 to 2012, less than 30 percent of seabirds had plastic in their guts; today, researchers project nearly 90 percent do – and it’s getting worse.

All it took to turn banning plastic straws into a cause celebre was a disturbing video, which went viral in 2015, of marine rescuers slowly extracting a straw from the bleeding nostril of a wheezing sea turtle.

So what should Tacoma do?

These days, when the Seattle City Council passes any blanket edict with aggressively progressive motives, the first reflex is skepticism. File it under “H” for head tax, and “B” for backlash.

But when a community east of the Cascades, far from the epicenter of political correctness, wakes up and takes action, it becomes harder for a forward-looking city like Tacoma to do nothing.

Yakima County deserves kudos for “The Last Straw” campaign, now under way in its Solid Waste Division. Through relationship building and gentle persuasion, county employees are helping businesses reduce straw use.

Restaurants are encouraged to adopt an ask-first policy, rather than assume every patron needs a tube to drink through. The county also promotes switching to non-plastic alternatives. Some restaurants educate customers by putting sign cards on tables.

This kind of soft touch would be a good place for Tacoma to start.

There are times to trade carrots for sticks, such as when the city implemented its plastic bag ordinance a year ago. But Tacoma policy makers wisely took their time, and collected much public input, before banning “single-use” sacks and requiring retailers to charge a fee for recycled paper or other reusable bags.

Letting others be the early adopters isn’t a bad idea. That’s what Tacoma did with its bag ban, allowing Seattle, Olympia and others to work out the kinks for a few years.

Making the transition from plastic straws does present challenges, not least of which is finding a cost-effective, durable material that doesn’t turn soggy and fall apart in your milkshake.

And a rising activist chorus is denouncing straw bans for failing to account for the unique eating and drinking needs of disabled people.

While the world’s brightest beverage consumption engineers strive to solve such riddles, other creative minds are turning to the free market to change habits. The Surfrider Foundation has an “ocean friendly restaurant” program in which members agree to follow recycling and wise water and energy use practices, forgo Styrofoam packaging and plastic bags, and provide disposable utensils and straws only upon request. A handful of Tacoma area restaurants have signed up.

So raise your glass to those who recognize being a good steward requires a comprehensive waste-reduction strategy. Raise it to those who trade convenience for conservation every single day.

To them, we offer a toast – without a straw, naturally.

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