February 19, 2021

Are Americans Purchasing Fewer Plastic Straws?

By Pattern Data Science / Ecommerce Trends, Amazon

A recent report by the World Economic Forum estimates the world’s oceans will be home to more plastic than fish by the year 2050. Some activists claim that many citizens can combat this problem by making one simple sustainable swap—replacing plastic straws with reusable or compostable ones.

The push to go straw-free, first promoted by then 9-year-old Milo Cress in 2011, has paved the way for a global movement to ditch disposable straws. As the movement has gained momentum, companies like Starbucks, Hilton, and American Airlines have either eliminated plastic straws completely or made them more difficult for customers to get.

New legislation has also aimed to decrease the number of plastic straws that end up in the ocean. California, Seattle, and the European Union have all banned plastic straws in restaurants to some extent. Campaigns like National Skip the Straw Day, coming up on Feb. 26, encourage consumers to sip from more sustainable straws.

But have these campaigns resonated with consumers? To answer this question, we analyzed data around consumer demand for straws on Amazon for every day of 2019 and 2020. Here’s what we found:

Searches for reusable straws made up just 18% of total straw searches on Amazon in 2020.

This is a decrease from 22% in 2019. While these figures may seem discouraging to straw-free activists, it’s not necessarily bad news. It’s possible that consumers who previously purchased reusable straws simply had no reason to purchase more in 2020. Either way, single-use straws are still the most popular choice for consumers shopping Amazon for straws.

Compostable straws are even less popular than reusable straws.

In both 2019 and 2020, searches for compostable straws made up a mere .002% of Amazon straw searches. Evidently, consumers who want to be more mindful of their plastic straw use tend to turn to reusable straws before compostable ones.

Overall Amazon straw searches dropped by 20% in 2020.

While we can’t know precisely what caused this drop in demand, it’s most likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which dramatically changed consumer behavior across all Amazon categories. One possible explanation is that restaurants and workplaces needed fewer straws as Americans stayed home more often during the pandemic.

Between November 2018 and December 2020, straw searches peaked in June 2019.

This peak shortly followed the European Union’s ban on single-use plastics, including plastic straws, in March 2019. It’s possible the ban scared companies and consumers into replenishing their straw inventories.

We also see peaks in straw searches in early 2019 and 2020.

However, we only see these peaks in the single-use plastic straw market. Restaurants, hotels, and airlines—all of which are less likely to use reusable straws than consumers—may restock their straw supply toward the beginning of the year.

So, should environmentalists be encouraged that their efforts to reduce straw use seem to be paying off? It’s too soon to say. While it’s encouraging that consumer demand for straws is down on Amazon year over year, this is likely related to the pandemic, and reusable and compostable straws still make up a small fraction of total searches. We’ll know more about how consumer attitudes and behaviors have truly changed once consumers resume life as normal after the pandemic.

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