If you've been online recently, chances are you've seen celebrities, professional baseball teams and cities jumping on the popular movement to ban plastic straws. It's a thoughtful gesture — but experts say the move is probably more symbolic than anything.
Each year, 9 million tons of plastic end up in Earth's oceans and coastlines, but straws make up only a tiny portion of that trash. Scientists estimate that even if every discarded straw stayed in Earth's oceans — and that's about 2,000 tons' worth — they would account for about three-hundredths of one percent of all plastic waste.
So if straws are such a small problem, why are they the center of conservation campaigns? Some organizations acknowledged that cutting straws won't drastically cut the amount of trash in oceans. Rather, they're hoping by advertising these lifestyle choices, they can cause what psychologists call a positive spillover effect.
Research shows that if people take up one simple-to-follow behavior to help the environment, they're likely make more good environmental decisions in the future.
But a straw ban could also cause a negative spillover effect. Experts say that when people are encouraged to be environmentally friendly — say, through a government ban — they may not completely understand why the ban is place. Or they could get complacent about doing "enough," and do other things that damage the environment.
But being told to think environmentally is still usually better than nothing. For instance, when Ireland imposed a tax on plastic bags, they eventually fell out of use by 94 percent.