Straw Man

— 3 minute read

Earlier this week, we were at the neighbourhood Vietnamese restaurant having pho for lunch. The waiter served us our drinks, accompanied with two biodegradable straws in paper packaging.

For a few moments I stared at my straw and the glass of water. The environmentalist dilemma of the day - should I use the straw, or not?

  • Yes: this is probably not a good time to sip from a restaurant glass.
  • No: probably everybody would think the same so the glass rim probably hasn't been touched by human lips in a year.
  • Yes: the straw is biodegradable so there is less environmental impact.
  • No: refuse is the first R, always refuse first. Energy and water were used in creating the straw. Others can use it.
  • Yes: it really makes no difference in the larger scheme of matters.
  • No: every little bit counts.

I set my straw aside. For the iced coffee I drank from Leo's straw.

The pho was good but the soup could be warmer. We finished it in record time and the waiter came around to clear the table while Leo went to pay the bill at the counter. And right in front of my widened eyes, Waiter Guy chucked the unused straw, paper packaging and all, into the bowl of cold leftover pho soup and whisked everything away.

And this is why we can't rely on changing personal behaviour as our main strategy for environmental action. You have no control over the upstream and the downstream of your actions. It requires the coordination of the entire society and the entire supply chain to be sustainable, otherwise it is just wishful thinking.

Take recycling for example - your bag of recyclables produced seventy bags of trash on the way to you (according to The Story of Stuff), and there is no guarantee that your carefully sorted recyclables are actually recycled. In fact from what I know, if there is no market for them, they go straight to where all the other trash go.

So don't feel too bad when they tell you that you're responsible for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or microplastics in breast milk. Do what you can, for sure, but there is a great deal that you can't do. What needs to happen is much bigger than your personal ethical dilemmas.

Such as? Such as companies like Apple taking back my broken charger when I buy a new one, actually implementing the circular economy instead of just talking about it. Such as governments putting community composting and carbon tax in place, among ten thousand other things that they can do. Such as rich countries not dumping their trash in poor countries.

Let us not limit our imagination to a straw.