Reprinted with permission from Pacific Legal Foundation’s Summer Sword & Scales.
Developing effective public policy is tough, thoughtful work. There is so much to consider: What is the problem? What can be done about it? Who is best equipped (and legally authorized) to do it?
What is the likelihood of success? Time, study, and seriousness are the name of the game.
That is, unless you’re a California state official. In that case, no hard thinking — or data — is needed. Just develop public policy based on what feels good. The California plastic straw ban is a prime example.
In an effort to seem as ecofriendly as possible, California, along with several cities and localities around the country, have decided to outlaw plastic straws in bars and restaurants unless upon specific request.
These sweeping policy decisions were not based on serious contemplation of the issue, studies looking into the best environmental practices, or considering reality. Instead, they were inspired by a report from a 9-year-old and a viral YouTube video featuring an injured sea turtle.
Here’s the background: Eight years ago, a fifth-grader named Milo Cress began a campaign urging his hometown to “Be Straw Free.” He encouraged restaurants to ask customers before offering straws. As part of the campaign, Milo called a handful of straw manufacturers and asked them how many straws they sell. Then, based on that limited data, he extrapolated a claim that Americans consume 500 million plastic straws a day.
That study might be fine for a middle school project. But actual daily straw usage in the United States is between 170 million and 390 million according to real data, still high — but much lower than Milo’s guesstimate.
Despite the true numbers showing otherwise, The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and other media outlets all ran stories citing the 500 million straw estimate. Then, when the sad but hardly scientific video of the sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in his nose went viral, California lawmakers jumped on the bandwagon to feign legislative concern.
The straw ban makes for a feelgood story and nice talking point for politicians. But as actual public policy, it distracts from potentially much more consequential environmental policies like improving plastic use in products such as shipping containers. It also disregards how many of the proposed alternatives like paper straws and sippable cup lids have a worse environmental impact than plastic straws, or how the amount of plastic waste produced by Americans, relative to the rest of the world, is negligible.
Politicians pushing the straw ban narrative seem to think that reality or actual solutions shouldn’t get in the way of a feel-good story or scoring political points. But knee-jerk public policy making like this is a poor excuse for real solutions.
Timothy Snowball is an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation.