I recently sheltered a dangerous fugitive in my apartment. Let me sketch this portrait of evil: He’s white, straight, and skinny. Eight inches tall. Quarter-inch wide. I’m talking about that notorious eco-terrorist, the plastic straw.
A few years ago, a moral panic spread across the globe as governments, companies, and right-minded celebrities united to banish plastic straws from respectable society. The impetus for the crusade came after a decade of data about the imminent environmental dangers of single-use plastic. Most of all, however, one peculiarly specific number inflamed the activist imagination, a single statistic lodging itself deep in the conservationist’s bleeding heart: 500 million plastic straws are used in the United States every day.
But a movement cannot live on numbers alone. And into this minefield of climate alarmism, fate tossed a tortoise, when marine biologist Christine Figgener uploaded an amateur video of a maimed sea turtle in Costa Rica with a plastic straw stuck in its nose. Every crusade needs a martyr. 39 million views later the straw movement had its poster turtle.
Society’s shapeless eco-panic consolidated around a tangible villain: the single-use straw—and concerned citizens around the globe answered the call to arms. First came the nonprofits as snappy, single-issue campaigns started popping up around the web: The Last Plastic Straw, For a Strawless Ocean, Our Last Straw, and Straw Wars. Entourage star Adrian Grenier launched the Lonely Whale nonprofit which led to the “Strawless in Seattle” initiative, and the Surfrider Foundation dubbed 2018 “the year we say goodbye to plastic straws.” Then the TED Talk phase arrived, and a string of precocious child activists were trotted out on the lecture circuit with recycling testimonials that scanned as first drafts of future college application essays. Nine-year-old Molly Steer announced the “Straw No More” initiative on the TEDx stage in Australia, while the brother-sister team Olivia and Carter Ries introduced their nationwide “One Less Straw” campaign as teenagers in 2016.
Then Hollywood joined the cause. Brooklyn Decker and Neil deGrasse Tyson starred in viral PSAs for the #stopsucking campaign—which elicited 50,000 pledges to give up plastic straws and amassed 831 million media impressions. Influencers from Leonardo DiCaprio to Chelsea Clinton vowed their hashtag loyalty to the #stopsucking revolution, and the issue took a victory lap as icons from Martha Stewart to Tom Brady shared their social media endorsement throughout 2018.
Where celebrities tweet, brands soon follow. Alaska Airlines replaced stir straws with “marine-friendly stir sticks” to take the “next step on our sustainability journey.” Royal Caribbean bid a bon voyage to single-use straws as part of their “Save the Waves” initiative. Hyatt, McDonald’s, and Disney phased out the shameful suckers in the name of climate compassion, while IKEA publicly exhibited its last plastic straw at London’s Design Museum as an “emblem for change.” Most conspicuously, Starbucks announced in July 2018 it would replace its signature green straws with recyclable lids to honor the company’s “long history in sustainability.”
On the back of this PR tailwind, the anti-straw zeal glided effortlessly from press release to policy proposal, as governments around the world wrote plastic purges into law. Seattle became the first major American city to bar single-use straws in July 2018. Other progressive strongholds soon passed similar legislation, and California became the first state to ban nonrequested straws in September 2018. India barred single-use straws by 2022, and France went one step further to outlaw plastic cups in 2020. Even Queen Elizabeth insisted that the sinful silicate be purged from the royal estate. The campaign’s sudden, intercontinental success offers a case study in what might be called the iron law of internet activism: viral animal video + quotable scare stat = “great moral cause of our time,” or at least until the next cute cat collides with a scaremonger stat on Twitter.
But what about that original statistic that launched a thousand hashtags? Where did this estimate of 500 million daily straws come from? The answer: a 9-year-old boy in Vermont. And the story of how this number goes from an elementary school to public policy reveals something essential but rather disconcerting about the progressive political imagination in the age of social media, and how misinformation takes root and then spreads in today’s highly politicized media ecosystem.
The year is 2011, and Milo Cress is in fourth grade in Burlington, Vermont. In the spirit of personal conservation, the 9-year-old launches the “Be Straw Free” campaign to persuade neighborhood restaurants and “concerned citizens to reduce the use and waste of disposable plastic straws.” Due to the lack of reliable figures on the issue, the fourth-grader decides to conduct a phone survey with three national manufacturers and averaged the results to reach the estimate that the country consumes 500 million straws each day. Our fledgling activist promptly earns adoring local and national coverage. Then in 2012, the nonprofit Eco-Cycle picks up Milo’s campaign and partners with the National Parks Service to publish a blog post on Milo’s research. And once a statistic enters the hallowed ground of a dot.gov URL—voila—the number is now enshrined as fact-checking gospel. Five years later, the 500 million figure is everywhere: appearing in CNN, USA Today, The Washington Post, Fox News, NPR, National Geographic, and The New York Times. The number graces U.N. climate reports, nonprofit white papers, and proposed bills in statehouses from Hartford to Sacramento. Climbing from a fourth grade classroom in Burlington Elementary to the governor’s desk in Sacramento in seven short years—Milo’s statistic grew up to be somebody.
It is important to note—in the name of context—that other straw counts from professional research groups are more conservative than Milo’s number. The market research firm Technomic estimates Americans use 170 million straws per day, and the Freedonia Group puts the number at 390 million. The Foodservice Packaging Institute, an 85-year-old trade association, estimates fewer than 250 million straws are consumed each day. But I did not write this piece to quibble with the venerable Foodservice Packaging Institute about their daily straw quotas—for my concern is not quantifying what Americans drink but qualifying how Americans think.
The viral success of Milo’s statistic is a symptom of a larger liberal failing—where the combination of complacent journalism, social media activism, and gullible audiences hungry for easy solutions come together to divert the energy for reform toward strawman causes. On closer examination, disposable straws are hardly Public Enemy No. 1 in the war on plastic. A 2018 study of the Pacific Waste Patch found that the main aqua pollutant was fishing nets (46%) and only 8% came from microplastics. While straws do make up 4% of total plastic trash by piece, they weigh so little that billions of straws make up just 0.0002% of the plastic littering the oceans each year. To add it all up: Straws account for 2,000 tons of the 9 million tons of annual plastic sea waste— or two ten-thousandths of the world’s marine pollution.
There is another issue: Alternatives to straws often prove more harmful to the environment than the status quo. To take one example, Starbucks replaced their old straw-and-lid combo with a recyclable “sippy” lid. But when Verify’s Jason Puckett weighed both the classic and the new Starbucks lid, he discovered the new “sustainable” version is 0.6 grams heavier than the old. In other words, the alternative out-pollutes the original.
To summarize, the straw ban is a policy based on unverified data from an elementary school student targeting a microscopic problem which often aggravates the malady it attempts to remedy. So how did we get here? Why did this policy become the cause célèbre for the climate cognoscenti?
The iron law of internet activism: viral animal video + quotable scare stat = ‘great moral cause of our time.’
What people choose to believe and what they choose to doubt is an urgent question in American political life. In a sharply polarized culture, skepticism tends to follow party lines. The right naturally distrusts liberal claims, and the left instinctively suspects conservative arguments. When presented with statistics that challenge one’s core values, most partisan soldiers will scrutinize the number for potential bias or prejudices—will look for the flaws in the source, not the subject. In this sense, skepticism is primarily a defensive weapon in politics, guarding against misinformation from outside rather than within the group. Yet when one encounters a data point that meets your preexisting worldview, you’re inclined to accept rather than interrogate. Scruples dissolve in the warm glow of self-validation. Thus, the critical eye melts into a forgiving ear ... especially when the big-ticket issues of the left enter the public square.
The consequences of this disparity are magnified by the liberal monopoly on legacy journalism jobs (where only 7% of journalists were Republicans in 2013). In such an uneven landscape, certain subjects earn maximal scrutiny while other agendas receive minimal scrutiny at a systematic scale. Add in the looming specter of “cancel culture,” and this discrepancy in coverage can evolve, in some newsrooms, from an honest oversight to a moral imperative. Even reporting statistics that complicate the prevailing progressive viewpoint is increasingly controversial at many high-profile outlets. (In just one example, Matthew Yglesias sparked an office scandal at Vox by publishing a story about the decrease in police shootings of African Americans since Ferguson.) The more sensitive the topic, the less contravening evidence will be tolerated in certain left-wing circles. Thus, the most important progressive issues of the day often have the least informed, nuanced discussions.
In such a media bubble, there’s a special liberal susceptibility to the style of hollow, utopian promises represented by the straw-ban campaign. Many of these promises and policy ideas come from activists, and in some cases the role of the activist and journalist become conflated. The activist’s role is to agitate, but the journalist’s role is to evaluate—to separate fact from fiction, to carve understatement and overstatement into accurate statement. But the partisan media business model is built on enlarging their audience’s blindspots rather than remedying them.
Here my argument lands on a great, overlooked fact of American political life: People are more likely to get misinformation from a friend than a foe. The most insidious misinformation comes from sources people trust who cloak a half-lie in science’s clothing or faith’s voice so it will slip under their audience’s radar without serious scrutiny. In the fake-news era, the species of misinformation that poses the greater risk to liberal aspirations—counterintuitively—comes not from the right but from the left—precisely because it goes unchallenged. Without equal-opportunity skepticism, there is a risk that the progressive solutions to society’s most pressing problems will be built on the least reliable information.
Case in point: Even after the shaky origins of Milo’s statistic became public knowledge, the anti-straw campaign moved forward, just with mildly altered messaging and media coverage. Some outlets issued a correction or added a meek disclaimer. But most wrote around it. For instance, Snopes did not officially debunk the 500-million number explaining, “No one has proven that figure wrong mind you: it’s just that Cress is the only source and no one has confirmed his research independently.” In the most telling example, after The Washington Post published a column criticizing the flaws with the original statistic on Feb. 1, 2018, the next day a different Post article cited Milo’s number again in with a slight revision in phrasing: “By some estimates, Americans throw away 500 million straws a day.”
By some estimates. Let me tell you about “some” estimates. By some estimates, shark cartilage and cabbage juice cure breast cancer while wind turbines cause it. By some estimates, more preschoolers die by gunshot each year than police officers. By some estimates, the world will be destroyed by flood in 2050, by meteor in 2026, by artificial intelligence in 2029, or by a super volcano in 1 million CE. By some estimates, Kim Jong-Un is the best golfer on Earth, Diet Coke is a diet food, vaccines trigger autism, gluten kills 42,000 children around the globe, and half a billion straws choke turtles each day. Estimates are not enough.
Such illusory estimates can be deployed to justify any fact or fiction. What’s disturbing is when smart, conscientious people deceive themselves by building their beliefs and movements on flimsy numbers they should know to scrutinize. When willfully untested statistics become the building blocks of our plan for a sustainable future, it is time to ring the alarm.
Theodore Gioia is a critic living in San Francisco. He works as the Program Director of Arion Press as his day job. His essays have appeared in The New Republic, The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The American Scholar. Theodore is currently writing a book on California culture clash framed through food.