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How The Campaign To Ban Plastic Straws Got Its Start


Starbucks, Ikea, Alaska Airlines, the city of Vancouver, Scotland - they're all banning plastic straws citing environmental concerns. It's starting to feel like a global movement. So why did this environmental campaign take off the way it did, and will it stick? Here's Stacey Vanek Smith of NPR's daily business podcast The Indicator.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Plastic is a huge problem in our oceans. But straws are a relatively minor part of that problem. They represent just a tiny fraction of our total plastic waste. Dune Ives is the executive director of Lonely Whale, the environmental group that spearheaded the straw war in the United States last year.

DUNE IVES: When we looked at the plastic straw itself, we realized it's the one thing that connects us every single day to the plastic crisis. So that's where as an organization we landed on the straw.

VANEK SMITH: Lonely Whale was struggling with this thing environmental groups often struggle with - the scope of the problem is enormous. Plastic is in everything. And getting people to act can be really hard because the whole thing kind of seems hopeless. But the straw had a few things going for it. First, straws are everywhere. We use millions of them every day. Second, people tend to use straws in public, so giving them up is like a public statement. And third, we don't really need them.

IVES: It's the one thing where there's an easy-to-implement solution. So let's start with the straw as a gateway plastic.

VANEK SMITH: A gateway plastic. And they added this catchy name - stop sucking. The campaign went viral. A lot of celebrities got onboard, including Ellen Pompeo, aka Meredith Grey from "Grey's Anatomy."


ELLEN POMPEO: I accept your challenge, and I vow never to suck again. So who can I challenge? My other favorite Ellen. Ellen DeGeneres, will you stop sucking?

VANEK SMITH: So is this a start? First straws, and then other kinds of plastic polluting our oceans?

HEATHER BARNES TRUELOVE: Hello, my name is Heather Barnes Truelove. I'm an associate professor of psychology at University of North Florida.

VANEK SMITH: Are you a doctor?


VANEK SMITH: So you're Dr. Truelove?


VANEK SMITH: That's the best thing I've ever heard. That's so awesome.

Dr. Truelove says tackling a giant problem like plastic in oceans with a small start like straws requires something called positive spillover. You refuse a straw, and suddenly you're kind of identifying yourself as an environmentalist, like, yeah, I'm part of the solution. And she uses the example of a person's health kick. Like, let's say you decide to get really fit, and you join a gym. And then that night, you go out to eat. And the waiter comes by with the dessert cart. And on it is this delicious piece of cake.

TRUELOVE: And I say, no. You know, I can't have this cake. I'm on an exercise kick, right?

VANEK SMITH: But things can go a very different way when the dessert cart comes around. And that is because of something called moral licensing.

TRUELOVE: You say, oh, yeah, you know I exercised today. I can totally get the dessert, right? This sort of - the exercise, the good deed that you've done, has licensed you to do sort of a bad thing in eating the cake.

VANEK SMITH: Dr. Truelove says she and other researchers are working to pinpoint what makes us go in a positive spillover direction versus what makes us go in the moral licensing direction. She says it's really subtle. We all have both impulses within us. But she does say that in cases like the straw, humans do have a slight tendency toward positive spillover. She says we do know momentum is key. For the war on straws to have a truly big impact, it will have to spread - first the lids, then the stirrers, then they're coming for your cup. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.