colorful straws

In the midst of a nationwide movement to reduce plastic straw use, a statistic claiming that Americans throw away 500 million of the utensils every day has made the rounds. It’s been cited by National Geographic, The New York Times, and the National Park Service. Only thing is, a 9-year-old is the researcher who unearthed the number.

The 9-year-old in question, now 16-years-old, is Milo Cress, the activist behind the Be Straw Free campaign. His affiliation alone should have journalists scratching their heads, and at least citing him as the source of the number. According to the book Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, Cress and his mother contacted various straw manufacturers and analyzed their supposed output. They claim that the National Restaurant Association confirmed the analysis that got them to the 500 million number. That’s about one and a half straws per person, per day. While the number seemingly didn’t come out of thin air, it’s certainly not ironclad. What should we make of that?

Should Publications Cite a Child’s Research?

Despite the figure’s amateur origins, other numbers on straw usage, like how many end up in waterways, are even less precise. The only data on that is from an Annual Coastal Cleanup Day in California, which found over 800,000 straws. Any other estimate has to be extrapolated from that figure, which led to the frequently cited “4.1 percent of debris is plastic straws” statistic floating around the internet.

It’s true that Cress, along with some of the liberal-leaning publications who promoted his statistic, had a vested interest in their audience seeing a nice, round number like 500 million when considering how much plastic they use. And while the National Restaurant Association corroborated the number, a more rigorously tested study has yet to be cited by mainstream media.

That doesn’t make Cress’ research arbitrary, though, being one of the only studies, amateur or not, addressing the issue. A journalist conducting original reporting on the subject of straw usage would likely follow a similar process: call an established expert, in this case, a national association, and report the findings that entity had collected independently.

It does, however, raise a larger question about the nature of citations online. If The New York Times publishes a numeric figure, should the general public assume it’s from a reliable, peer-reviewed source?

In light of the true source of the statistic circulating on social media, the National Park Service has removed the page on their website citing Cress’ research. Before that, other publications, as they so often do, recycled the link from platform to platform, presumably without fact-checkers zeroing in to clarify who provided the data.

How Many Straws Do Americans Actually Throw Away?

Ironically, through its own data, Starbucks provided some of the best evidence of a global plastic straw problem when it admitted to giving out 1 billion straws a year. With that number in mind, 500 million discarded straws doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility — some activist groups argue its too small.

Regardless of the exact number of straws Americans actually use each day, we know it’s is a lot. The moral case for limiting plastic straw use is founded on sound logic and backed up by ample evidence that they end up in the stomachs of all sorts of animals.

The conundrum posed by the questionable straw statistic isn’t with the movement against plastic straws. Instead, it’s with media organizations moving too fast to provide a clear source for statistics.