Q&AZ: Do Americans Really Use 500 Million Plastic Straws A Day?

Published: Monday, September 3, 2018 - 9:09am
Updated: Monday, September 3, 2018 - 11:35am
Audio icon Download mp3 (3.07 MB)

It’s almost impossible to determine exactly how many single-use plastic straws are used every day, and even harder to determine just how many end up in the ocean.

That’s according to Dune Ives, executive director of Lonely Whale. Her group is one of the most vocal supporters of the movement to stop using plastic straws, and in some cases even banning them, underway across the country.

“We don’t know specifics - nobody does - but what we do know about the straw is that they’re always found in the top ten plastic pollution items during beach cleanups every single year,” Ives said.

However Lonely Whale, other environmental groups, and even the National Park Service, have said that Americans use about 500 million plastic straws every day.

The National Park Service did not respond to multiple requests to discuss the source and methodology behind their use of this number. 

The specific 500 million number came from nine-year-old Milo Cress, who in 2011 called three straw manufactures, made an estimate and sent those numbers to non-profit Eco-Cycle, who distributed the number. 

“Which is laudable for a nine-year-old but is less than scientific,” said Christian Britschgi, an assistant editor at Reason Magazine who often advocates against banning straws.

Britschgi said he’s called market analysts and calculated that Americans use about 175 million straws a day.

“So considerably less, and more recent figures as well,” he said.

While opponents of straw bans are quick to point out the source of the statistic, Ives doesn’t think it’s that far off.

She said her group pulled data on straw use at a number of large chains, including Starbucks and Burger King, “and also added in restaurants and bars and sports stadiums and airports. On the very low end we think there's about 300 million used in the United States every single day,” Ives said.

On the high end, Lonely Whale’s estimate is close to 750 million.

“So we think 500 million is actually pretty accurate,” she said.

Despite all this, Ives also said that number isn’t actually that important to her.

“I have to be honest, I love when people call us out!”

She said her group’s goal has always been to raise awareness about how ocean wildlife can be impacted by all single-use plastics,  not just straws.

“The straw causes people to want to get engaged and they become curious and now we can have a conversation about other single-use plastic items that are actually much more impactful and harmful to the marine environment,” she said.

But Britschgi said overlooking the use of the 500 million statistic is irresponsible, especially when it comes to government.

“Anytime somebody proposes a straw ban, normally within the text of the legislation itself, they quote the 500 million stat,” he said.

Lawmakers in California, Washington and Canada have cited the number when proposing plastic straw bans.

Thank you to  KJZZ listener Steve Copeland who asked us via Q&AZ  if the 500 million plastic straw statistic was accurate.

If you like this story, Donate Now!

Like Arizona Science Desk on Facebook