Plastic Straws

The everlasting photos of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in their nose has no doubt created a push to remove plastic straws from our glasses. Some could argue that it isn’t the straw that hurts the turtle, rather the people who don’t dispose of it correctly. Others, however, say that eliminating plastic straws is the easier, cost effective, and all-around planet friendly correction.

First let’s begin with seeing some statements around the idea as a whole:

  • “[Plastic] is a good material and a very useful material, the problem is waste collection and the lack of recycling,” said Plastico CEO Caroline Wiggins [2].
  • “The price differences between disposable plastic straws and eco alternatives are still a barrier to venues adopting them,” [2]
  • Most plastic straws are too lightweight to make it through the mechanical recycling sorter. They drop through sorting screens and mix with other materials and are too small to separate, contaminating recycling loads or getting disposed as garbage. [1]
  • Globally, it is estimated that approximately 52% of all sea turtles have ingested plastic debris [3]

I think we can all agree that the average person likely doesn’t use proper recycling techniques. And, even if we do, that doesn’t mean the trash truck won’t drop debris as it is unloads our bins. The next time you have a chance, watch a trash truck go through your neighborhood as it empties each bin. What you’ll see can be eye opening, bins that aren’t even fully loaded still spill off into the streets as they are being tossed upside down and emptied. Thus, the notion that we can improve the situation with more regulated recycling efforts isn’t the answer, although it would help.

On a twisted side though, we could also say it is the “food service” industry. Just think back to the last time you ordered takeout and asked for ketchup, how many packets did you get, like 500? How many of these packets end up in the ocean? Either way, my point is we can’t say that educating society on proper recycling is going to fix the problem. There is still the process of collection that reduces the positive effects of good recycling habits. We also can’t just push the blame to the trash companies, enforcing a correction on their part is no different than forcing a correction on the straw manufacturers.

In any case, we will always find an argument against and for a social/moral dilemma. I say this because we are humans and we don’t all think alike. For this reason, let’s look at the problem using an economic model. This will be the standard supply and demand model, but with the twist of a societal external cost.

(Note: MPC=Marginal Private Cost, not a major need to explain for this discussion)

In the image above we can see a relatively simple supply and demand curve. This graph is explained by saying that “P1” is the price a consumer will pay for quantity “Q1” of goods. The black downward sloping curve is the consumer demand for straws, and the purple upward sloping curve is the supply by producers.

The challenge with this model is that it doesn’t explain anything in regard to social costs. Let’s say we were able to equate the true cost of “straw” damage to $1.00 per straw. Meaning, suppose there was enough research done that proved we could fix all the turtles and ocean plastic issues in the world if we could just charge $1.00 more per straw. Yes, I agree that is very unrealistic, but it makes the model easy to explain.

Moving on; if that’s the case we would have to shift our supply curve to cover these social costs, or in economic terms “Marginal External Costs” (MEC). Since, we decided it was $1.00 of damage, we then move the supply curve up an equal value and now get the graph below:

The new supply curve in red as S2
(Note: MSC=Marginal Social Cost, not a major need to explain for this discussion)

With our new supply curve (S2) in red we now have a new price point for the consumer (P2). Here the consumer is paying a higher cost for the straw (which we knew was going to happen) to help cover these external costs. Without going into boring details, the $1.00 external cost isn’t totally paid for by consumers though, producers also have to pay a portion. Therefore, you now see a “P3,” which is the price producers actually receive for each item sold.

In summary so far, P1 was the original consumer price, and what producers received. We decided there was a social/external cost worth $1.00 to fix the oceans problems of plastics. Thus, we shifted our supply curve by $1.00, which now caused consumers to pay P2 prices, but producers to receive only P3 dollars. Well what happens to quantity of consumption then?

Well it goes down of course! If people are paying more money, they won’t purchase as much. If producers are making less money, then they will produce something else. In this case, the problem starts to correct itself. We can cover the cost of damage with $1.00 per unit sold, but by the government charging this added tax people consume less, and producers produce less.

The real question is who is right, or who is better off? Producers don’t want to have to change production techniques. Look at my quote from above “The price differences between disposable plastic straws and eco alternatives are still a barrier to venues adopting them,” [2].

What this person is saying is that the “barrier” to produce other goods (such as paper or metal straws) is too expensive. Well, is this true? Not totally, it would be true for a random person who has very little cash and investment in the industry. However, a company that already knows the pricing models, has distribution contracts, and understands the industry trends, only has a slight learning curve and added costs. True, they would have to purchase new equipment and establish new production methods. But they can do so a lot quicker than a “nobody company.” Some might say they could be operational in no time.

For those in favor of alternative straws we win. As companies shift to producing other types of straws, we are much happier because there is less plastic in our oceans. We also win because we will find ourselves being less wasteful and happier with an alternative straw even if it costs us more.

Consumers who are not in favor of alternative straws also win. Yes, they pay more for their plastic straws (assuming they are still available). However, soon there will be less of those around and will be forced to pay for an alternative straw. When they purchase this alternative straw, such as a metal one, they will shortly recognize its durability over time which directly reduces their yearly straw expenses. In other words, they win in the long run, even though they won’t see it today.

Producers in either fashion are also winners! That’s right, even though they took on a change in production, and a loss in profits from plastic straws, they become winners in the long run. This is because once they shift production to the alternative method, they will again be back to where they started with a standard supply and demand curve. That is to say, once they change products they will no longer be forced to pay for the social/external costs, and thus be making standard profits from a standard supply and demand model.

In the end, if it doesn’t truly hurt producers of the product to where they go out of business and end up homeless, and consumers are not left to die in thirst as they can’t drink fluids anymore, then the results are promising to help the planet and everyone can be a winner.

One last bit here to think about, I’ve heard people say, “who cares about the turtles, just give me my plastic straw.” The point is, if it doesn’t hurt anyone to switch from plastic to something else then why not? Or in other words, is it really that much more painful for you to switch to a paper/metal straw than plastic does to our planet?

[1] For A Strawless Ocean. (2019). Why This Matters — For A Strawless Ocean. Available at: [Accessed 5 Jun. 2019].

[2] Kottasová, I. (2019). Plastic straw makers brace for bans. [online] CNNMoney. Available at: [Accessed 5 Jun. 2019].

[3] Wilcox, C., Puckridge, M., Schuyler, Q., Townsend, K. and Hardesty, B. (2018). A quantitative analysis linking sea turtle mortality and plastic debris ingestion. Scientific Reports, 8(1).

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