Despite the movement to ban plastic straws, there is still a case for having them. Don’t get me wrong, I care about the environment. I am aware that I make a negative impact on it and that I should do more to lessen that impact.
But the plastic straw thing is throwing up a number of questions, some of which ask if we are getting too carried away with it all and whether or not those supposedly with the environment at heart actually have an agenda not necessarily related to saving it. Are they really walking the talk?
Sceptics argue that it is merely a PR stunt
This month, Starbucks jumped onboard the strawless bandwagon and announced that all of its stores globally will be plastic straw-free by 2020. The decision has been polarising but universally accepted as a win for raising greater awareness of the scourge plastics are to our planet. Sceptics argue that it is merely a PR stunt.
Similarly, just a couple of weeks later, McDonald’s in Australia announced that it too is phasing out plastic straws over the next two years. McDonald’s has also been accused of doing it just for positive publicity.
Yet, in that country, there is no denying the rapid change in public sentiment towards single-use plastics such as straws, so McDonald’s move is understandable. The Queensland Government recently banned single-use plastics at all of its sanctioned events.
Furniture giant IKEA has said it wants to become “planet positive” by 2030
Meanwhile, the UK has pledged to follow other European countries like France, Ireland, Denmark, Belgium and Germany in introducing bans or taxes on the sale of single-use plastics. Furniture giant IKEA has said it wants to become “planet positive” by 2030, and in June this year said it will stop selling single-use plastic products in its stores and remove them from its restaurants by 2020. No doubt there will be more countries and corporations following suit.
I think we all agree in principle what is happening is a step in the right direction towards addressing the immediate problem we face with plastic. There is no doubting the impact it has had — and continues to have — on the environment.
More than 10 million plastic straws are used every day in Australia alone
To get an idea of the magnitude of the problem, it is alleged that more than 10 million plastic straws are used every day in Australia alone. The number used globally on a daily basis is staggering. In all, it has been estimated that about 300 million tons of plastic are produced annually, with more than eight million of them finding their way into oceans.
One of the frightening things in Vietnam is that we don’t have to read about it to know it is really happening — we can see it for ourselves every day. Sometimes it feels like most of the eight million tons has found its way to our shores, where at some beaches it is difficult to swim without a plastic bag getting wrapped around your ankle or behind your knee.
A recent local news report in Ho Chi Minh City about a small suburban canal choked with garbage — most of it plastic — shocked readers. The plastic didn’t get there by itself. It happens to be a convenient place for people to lob their waste as they pass across the bridge — no one calls them out on it. There is no wonder if we don’t change our habits now and dispose of things carefully, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish by 2050.
Here, things are being done, albeit piecemeal. Bars and restaurants have increasingly been doing their bit by committing to use non-plastic straws, in some cases serving drinks with straws only upon request.
However, this tends to be limited to establishments where foreign customers drink or dine. It represents a small percentage of the population and a small part of the problem. Everyone needs to get onboard in Vietnam for change to take place, with education the key.
Still, in an encouraging sign, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of venues around Ho Chi Minh City serving drinks with stainless steel or paper straws — some made of bamboo or grass.
The war on plastic straws in Vietnam has at times verged on being militant
But going plastic strawless shouldn’t be at the expense of mindfulness. The war on plastic straws in Vietnam has at times verged on being militant within the expatriate community.
One bar owner told me recently about an unpleasant exchange he had with a representative of a recently created non-profit group that espouses the use of plastic alternatives in the F&B sector. The bar owner didn’t see the need to support their mission. Needless to say, he wasn’t appreciative of the representative’s response who went on to accuse him of not caring for the environment.
And then there are blog posts telling us how we can be more eco-friendly. One recently published by an expat in Vietnam suggests that women can be more eco-friendly if they switch to a plastic reusable menstrual cup when they are menstruating.
Okay, we get it, but how far is too far? Change does start with the individual, but how far should an individual be expected to go before things just get too impractical, ridiculous, even unfair?
A lot of noise about the recent bans on plastic straws has come from the disabled community. Disabilities are as diverse as the people with them so any bans will impact differently depending on the disability.
My younger brother, for example, who is quadriplegic, can’t move his fingers, yet he is still able to drink from a cup or bottle unassisted. He says that a ban on plastic straws would make it inconvenient for him at times, but in general, he is all for saving the planet. He drinks from reusable plastic bottles: “I take them everywhere,” he says. “I would argue that while it’s one more thing that people would have to think about, disabled people are used to being prepared for many situations; it’s already routine.”
It is another example of the disabled community not being heard, much less consulted
For him, he says that worrying about having a straw is “probably 999th on my list of things to worry about” and is not an issue he wishes to focus his energy on. “There are literally thousands of alternatives for me,” he says. “I just don’t think it’s an issue for me to pump energy into.”
He does, however, agree that it offers yet another example of the disabled community not being heard, much less consulted, before laws are enacted.
However, it is a different story for my nephew. Due to complications at birth, he acquired Cerebral Palsy, a movement disorder that inhibits coordination, stiffens muscles and causes seizures, among other life-threatening complications. He relies on straws for drinking but alternatives like metal would chip his teeth and paper isn’t useful or practical in his case.
Because my nephew lives in Australia, bamboo straws are scarce. Even if they were an option, they would need to be dried and sterilised after each use, something which his parents are reluctant to do because it would involve the use of chemicals. With the way things are going, they believe it is likely in the near future that they will need a prescription just so their son can drink through a plastic straw.
While the zero waste movement here in Vietnam is positive, the hardliners promoting it need to keep a close eye on what is transpiring abroad so they don’t make the same mistakes that lead to alienation and discrimination.
They need to be mindful, otherwise things may become harder for people living with disabilities who are simply trying to do what most of us take for granted.
It is one thing to push for alternatives to single-use plastic straws, but to do so with little or no thought on how the entire community might be affected or accommodated isn’t fair or just. The last thing we need is for zero waste to become recognised as zero compassion.