Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) is the largest food and beverage company so far to jump onto the latest feel-good environmental bandwagon: banning plastic straws. It will substitute sippy-cup lids and alternative-material straws at its 28,000 company-operated and licensed stores, which it estimates will eliminate more than 1 billion plastic straws per year from its operations.

CEO Kevin Johnson called it "a significant milestone to achieve our global aspiration of sustainable coffee, served to our customers in more sustainable ways."

Starbucks new plastic lid

Starbucks' new sippy-cup lid. Image source: Starbucks.

The only problem is that the sippy cup toppers and some of the replacement straws are also made of plastic. While the new lids are recyclable, they actually weigh more than the straws they're replacing. So in effect, Starbucks is using more plastic than it was before.

A lighter shade of green

There's nothing wrong with businesses trying to be more environmentally friendly. In fact, they should be encouraged to do so. But when some companies rush to tout their sustainable actions, more often than not they're really engaging in "greenwashing" -- trying to benefit from actions that don't achieve what they claim, or that actually further the environmental harm they say they're trying to minimize.

We saw that with restaurants like McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) and Taco Bell racing to go cage-free with their eggs. While the conditions of factory-raised poultry are a step above those raised in battery cages, the birds are still housed wing to beak, and it remains a sorry life for the chicken. It's hardly the life of a true free-range bird, yet restaurants and food processors got a lot of mileage out of their PR campaigns touting their efforts.

Now we're seeing it with plastic straws. MGM Resorts has a more modest goal than Starbucks: eliminating 100 million straws per year by removing plastic straws from its casinos, restaurants, and bars, and only serving them if asked for by a patron. The move, it says, is "the latest addition to MGM's comprehensive environmental responsibility program and can further enhance our efforts to protect our planet."

Third-grade math

The problem is, the figure of 500 million plastic straws used in the U.S. per day being touted to justify the pressure campaigns against food and beverage chains is wrong. In fact, it is based on a three-company survey conducted by a nine-year-old.

In 2011, that child -- Milo Cress -- received a plastic straw in his drink at a Burlington, Vermont restaurant and thought it was an unnecessary waste. In launching a campaign to get local restaurants to stop using plastic straws, he called up three straw manufacturers to get an idea of the size of the straw market and averaged their numbers. Environmental groups and politicians soon latched on to his 500-million-straw figure and began ratcheting up the pressure.

Earlier this year, McDonald's shareholders rejected a proposal to study the issue of plastic straws with an eye on banning their use. Nevertheless, McDonald's will ban them in the U.K. and Ireland by the end of next year, and begin phasing them out elsewhere in Europe. But they'll remain at its U.S. restaurants.

Hand holding plastic straws at beach

Image source: Getty Images.

Doing nothing by doing something

Although any amount of plastic in the waste stream is too much, and reducing it is a good idea, pressuring businesses to eliminate plastic straws is not going to have any meaningful impact for four primary reasons:

  • The scope of the problem is exaggerated. More-rigorous analysis by food-industry consultant Technomic puts the number of straws in the U.S. waste stream at a more realistic 170 million to 175 million per day: still a lot, but not quite the apocalyptic numbers being cited by activists.
  • The alternatives are more expensive, with estimates putting the price of paper straws at around 10 times the cost of their plastic counterparts.
  • Data from a study published in the journal Science says that of the 20 biggest countries contributing to plastic pollution, the U.S. is last, with less than 1% of the total mismanaged plastic waste. China is by far the world's biggest polluter, contributing as much as 3.5 million metric tons of plastic per year and accounting for over 27% of the total.
  • Scientific American notes that all the world's rivers dump up to 2.75 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean each year, but just eight of them contribute an astounding 93% of the total -- and all those rivers are in Asia and Africa. The worst is China's Yangtze River, which flows into the Yellow Sea and accounts for an estimated 1.5 million metric tons, or more than half the total.

By all means, eliminate plastic straws from your stores and restaurants, but don't think it will have any meaningful impact on the pollution problem. Corporations claiming they are delivering a significant blow to plastic in the waste stream are merely posturing to allow themselves to look environmentally concerned without having to really resolve the issue. At the same time, they are raising their costs -- and potentially their prices -- and in some cases may even be exacerbating the problem.