The inaccurate brilliance behind the campaign against plastic straws

When you think of plastic straws and how they affect our oceans, I’m sure a specific figure comes to mind: 500 million.

500 million straws are used in America every day. That’s right! Every. Single. Day.

Well…about 500 million. Or…maybe not. Why is this statistic so debated? Because it was determined by a 9-year-old boy. Yes, a 9-year-old child. (When I was nine, I cried for two days because I had to miss my class holiday party. So yeah, I’d say this kid and I are on the same page.)

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In 2011, Milo Cress started began to notice excessive plastic straw use around him, so he started calling plastic manufacturers to try and get a stat for daily straw use in the United States. Through his research, he came up with 500 million “because it seemed to be around the middle of what [the manufacturers] were saying.”

There has, expectedly, been some criticism or lack of trust of this stat, specifically among news outlets, such as Fox News. Similarly, according to a July 2018 New York Times article, this estimate may be 100-300 million straws more than actual straw consumption determined by market research firms.

But still, the 500 million figure consistently shows up as the foundation of many anti-plastic straw campaigns. This number was endorsed by Eco-Cycle, a non-profit recycler in Boulder, and was further promoted by the National Park Service.  It was the basis of the For A Strawless Ocean campaign started by Lonely Whale, and it continues to be a recognized figure, specifically on social media.

So…how is this possible? I have very limited experience in statistics or quantitative research, but for such a widely circulated statistic, this seems very under-researched.

Let’s preface this by saying I’m not criticizing Cress and his stat at all. I personally am totally on board for the whole #StopSucking, anti-plastic straw thing, while acknowledging that plastic straws are the most viable option for people with certain disabilities and some older adults and children. Also, the fact that he was determined to make a change at the ripe age of nine is amazing and continues to make me feel inadequate.

I’m definitely a supporter of spreading truth and not “alternative facts,” so I can’t necessarily condone the continued use of this stat. However, it’s hard to deny that Cress’ number is a big part of the success of many campaigns against plastic straw use. Let me explain why.

First of all, 500 million is just a generally cleaner number than any stats proposed by market research companies. It’s half a billion. Not 390 million or 170 billion. Five hundred million — it’s concise and easy to repeat. It’s “cleaner” in the sense that it’s even, which makes it more pleasing to humans, which, in turn, makes it memorable.

Not to mention how extremely shocking that number is. Half a billion or 500 million is unfathomable for many Americans, so it’s really effective in scaring people away from using plastic straws. Also, even in the NYT article, the estimates given ranged by about 200 million straws a day, so it’s really a toss-up on what exactly to believe.

Second and most importantly, the success of this stat demonstrates the power of storytelling. A good story can capture anyone, even those people who don’t initially have a stake in the concept of the story.

The 500 million figure is tied to Cress’ story — one of a young child doing his own research on his own time to solve a problem — which is much more memorable than reading statistics in market research reports. His story touches many audiences in one way or another, ranging from environmentalists passionate about waste reduction to parents trying to inspire their children to make a change.

I mean, really. Tell me which story you think is more powerful: an inspiring young boy, calling place to place asking for research, determined to conduct personal research for his campaign to save the oceans, or someone sitting in front of a computer doing some stuff on a calculator and reporting to their boss. (Remember when I mentioned I’m not a statistician? I clearly don’t know how it works.)

Even when facing criticism over the accuracy of his research, Cress brought everyone back to the core of his message: “any number [of straws] is too high.”

Regardless of your opinions on anti-plastic straw campaigns, you have to admit: Cress’ story and figure of 500 million were so successful once they were picked up by a couple campaigns, people were jumping on the no straw bandwagon left and right — even people who had never recycled a day in their lives.

His story — a story of determination to change — was relatable and effective in changing peoples’ behavior, even though it might be completely based on an inaccuracy. That’s the mark of a truly great story.

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