In the last few weeks, the internet has enjoyed a hearty laugh at a California bill that would ban the use of plastic straws and throw violators in jail. Sneaking under the radar, however, is a similar proposal from Hawaii.
The Hawaii version is slightly less draconian, in that it requires fugitive straw users to pay only up to a $500 fine and do community service.
It’s also closer to actual passage, having moved through the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Environment with three “aye” votes and none opposed.
The testimony in favor of the straw bill was focused primarily on the environmental impact of straws. People unfamiliar with Hawaii might be led to believe that the streets and beaches of our islands are littered with plastic straws. I assure you that is not the case.
So where did this notion come from? If you think the sudden national paroxysm over plastic drinking straws feels like it came out of left field, you’re not far off. The oft-cited claim that Americans use 500 million plastic drinking straws every day (and presumably toss them over their shoulder and laugh heartlessly as they walk away) actually comes from the work of a then-9-year-old activist and is based on telephone surveys.
Now, of course I don’t want to slight the energy and enthusiasm of our youth, but could we maybe find a more scientifically rigorous source of data before stampeding toward the cause of the moment?
Unfortunately, it looks as if the answer is “No.”
Reason.com identified 15 major media outlets that repeated the straw statistic — a statistic from a biased and questionable source — without any trace of skepticism. The website noted that it is even “in the text of a Hawaii bill that would ban the distribution of plastic straws in the state.”
In the Hawaii hearing, supporters suggested the public turn to paper, bamboo, steel or glass straws as an alternative, which suggests that none of them plan to give a milkshake to a toddler in the backseat of their new car at any time in the near future.
Representatives of the restaurant and beverage industries pointed out that those alternatives are not practical or widely available at this time.
Advocates for the disabled have commented that a plastic straw ban would be especially difficult for those with special needs.
But why let a little practicality interfere with the warm glow that comes from legislating environmental morality?
The real problem here is not the straw bill. Every year, the Hawaii legislature has at least one proposal that is driven more by emotion and political trends than hard facts and research. The problem can be found in lawmakers who can’t pass a poster in the corner Starbucks without thinking, “There ought to be a law …”
If plastic straws really are a problem, there are a number of other mechanisms that could be employed before turning to a legislative response. The free market has a way of sorting these things out without using the boot of government to kick plastic straws out of juice boxes.
Rushing to legislation before an issue has been debated fully in the public square shows a distressing lack of judgment. There has been no real effort to fact-check the impetus for the law, nor any thought given to the consequences of the legislation.
There are times when it’s relatively harmless to buy into the trend of the moment — like when you’re trying a new hairstyle or making a Harlem Shake video with your co-workers. But lawmaking is not the equivalent of a unicorn frappuccino. If there is any place that should be blessedly free from the knee-jerk adoption of frivolous fashion, it should be the legislature.
It remains to be seen whether Hawaii’s straw bill has enough support to pass. Because of the scrutiny generated by the California proposal, it’s possible that future hearings will involve a more rigorous analysis of the merits of the bill.
The arguments supporting this particular straw man deserve to be taken apart, piece by piece.