What the campaign against plastic straws tells us about investing in changing systems vs. habits

In the seaside hamlet of Townsville, Australia, plastic straws were the casual-dining equivalent of scarlet letters. The signs were in every cafe, usually a computer printout next to the jugs of milk and spoons for coffee, some using templates from national campaigns like The Last Straw. The message was some version of the following: Do not use plastic straws, because plastic straws damage the ocean and its inhabitants.

Source: Getty Images via thehill.com

There was a good reason for this, and not just because Townsville is so close to the Great Barrier Reef and recently experienced disastrous climate-change-driven flooding: according to the (delightfully-named) nonprofit group Surfers Against Sewage, our oceans are filled with approximately 51 trillion microscopic pieces of plastic, weighing 269,000 tons. Eight million pieces of plastic are added to the ocean every single day. As the signs in Townsville constantly reminded me, plastic in the oceans does catastrophic damage to fish and other sea creatures, who mistake it for food or get tangled in its non-biodegradable web.

What I found interesting was not that these Australians were so proactive about caring for their environment — most people do not want garbage-filled oceans. But over and over again, I was struck by the “solution” implied by the signage: that the only way to stop plastic from entering the oceans was for individual people to stop using plastic.

I’m not knocking this strategy: we have to start somewhere, and targeting individual plastic use has the added benefit of bringing awareness to the impact of our consumption. I happily purchased a cheap reusable bamboo straw from a Townsville coffee shop and used it throughout my visit to Australia.

But my thought as I bought my bamboo straw was this: Sure, I’ll change this one habit, but what is the endgame here? Is someone investing in the creation of a biodegradable substance that replaces plastic altogether?Has anyone said anything to the companies that manufacture and sell single-use plastic? Because single-use plastic manufacturing still hasn’t ceased, and as long as we’re still making plastic straws, they’re going to keep ending up in the ocean.

It’s also not just straws. There’s a whack-a-mole element to doubling down on a single type of single-use plastic. A number of the drinks I consumed with my bamboo straw were in plastic cups. I ate a nutrition bar packaged in a plastic wrapper because I was traveling and couldn’t prepare a real meal. I bought a plastic-wrapped single dose of ibuprofen when I got a headache. For each of those purchases, there was no bamboo straw option. My choices were either “don’t make this purchase at all” (leaving me decaffeinated, hungry, and with a headache) or “make this purchase and accept your role in murdering turtles.” I disposed of these plastics in trash or recycling cans as available, but given the recent global breakdown in recycling supply chains, it’s pretty likely that I added to landfills somewhere, bamboo straw notwithstanding. And I’m just one privileged and conscientious person. (I can also drink without a straw, an option not available to some disabled people.)

Again, we absolutely should continue to discourage the individual use of plastic in favor of alternatives that don’t damage our planet. But I’d like to challenge impact investors and entrepreneurs to put their money and their minds toward a wide-scale solution that brings us closer to an impact economy, where we don’t rely solely on consumer habits to correct system-wide manufacturing wrongs.