To ban, or not to ban? Plastic straws and the call to get rid of them

CINCINNATI -- As more people are becoming conscious of their carbon footprint and the impact humans have on the environment, plastic straws have become a target.

Companies like Starbucks and McDonald's, as well as states and cities, like California and Seattle, have issued proclamations to either limit usage of single-use plastic straws, or ban the utensil outright by a certain date.

These bans are meant to fight the rising levels of harmful plastics in the environment, also known as plastic pollution.

Rumpke said plastic is their second-most common piece of waste in their landfills, and the Hamilton County Recycling and Solid Waste District found plastic accounted for about 22 percent of all items thrown away by residents. But even when properly disposed of, some researchers estimate a little more than 10 percent of plastic in landfills makes its way to the ocean.

And plastic straws in particular have gained infamy in the fight against ocean-based plastic pollution in recent years after a video online showed a plastic straw being removed from the nostril of a sea turtle.

"We're always finding plastics along the shoreline, if they're not already floating out on the lakes and the streams and the oceans" Tim Ingram, Hamilton County health commissioner, said. "You find them. They're everywhere."

There is no plastic straw ban in Hamilton County, but Arnold's Bar and Grill, the oldest bar Cincinnati, has been way out in front of this national trend. Jim Tarbell, a former owner of Arnold's, banned plastic straws after he took ownership of the bar in the '70s, but customers can still get paper straws.

"For several years," Tarbell said, "Arnold's Bar and Grill was, at least in this Tri-State, was the only place that had [paper straws]."

Since then, other local restaurants have joined Arnold's, including the Crazy Foxy Saloon in Newport, Kentucky.

When Starbucks' worldwide ban goes into effect in two years, the company estimates they will eliminate 1 billion plastic straws from landfills and the environment each year the ban is in place.

While the intention behind getting rid of plastic straws is good, not everyone sees these bans as a positive.

In April 2017, Ryan Custer, 20, broke his neck and had a traumatic spine injury after he tried to jump into a makeshift pool. Since then, he has relied on plastic straws to help him drink anything from water to Mountain Dew.

"Hopefully I'm getting some hand function back," Custer said. "If not, I definitely have to rely on straws to be able to drink and do other things."

Metal or paper straws have been proposed as an alternative to plastic straws.

"We recommend you use reusable straws; stainless steel, glass, reusable plastic ones that you can use," Michelle Balz, Hamilton County assistant solid waste manager, said.

Some people with health conditions don't see these as good alternatives though.

Michael Denlinger was born with cerebral palsy, and plastic straws are the safest way for him to drink and stay hydrated.

"Drinking from a metal straw would be kind of hard because it might cut up the roof of people's mouths a little bit," Denlinger said. "I know I would get paper in my mouth because the straw would get really wet from my saliva. Then you'll have a choking hazard on your hands at that point."

Denlinger said he understands the desire to help the environment, but he hopes the consequences of the ban won't alienate people who need plastic straws to live.

"I know it's important to look out for the environment and the planet and I'm cool with that," Denlinger said. "But in looking out for the planet, let's not accidentally leave behind people who need certain things to live in their daily life."

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