The last straw? Fine, we have CUPS.

Brazil is known for its natural beauties with beaches that attract tourists all year long. However, incorrect waste disposal and environmental negligence have hindered the country’s ecosystem.

Take the beaches for instance. According to the Oceanographic Institute of the University of São Paulo (IO-SUP) together with the Socioenvironmental Plastics Institute (Plastivida), plastics account for 95% of the waste found on Brazilian beaches. 80% of these disposals come from the land.

Litter in Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Paula Giolito

A declared war against plastic straws.

In 2018, Rio de Janeiro banned the sale of drinks with plastic straws, the first Brazilian state capital to do so. The ban also targets straws that are created from greener material but are wrapped with plastic.

According to the councilors who wrote the law, the ban was introduced to protect the city’s nature and marine ecosystem. They envision that this would work by reducing the amount of plastic waste on Rio’s beaches, encourage citizens to start using biodegradable alternatives to plastic.

This is because rather than increase the price of plastic straws with heavy taxation or impose an overall ban on production, the councilors opted for a ban of the products in establishments which serve drinks to customers. That way, sellers must abandon its use or change to greener but more expensive alternatives.

No more straws, but we accept all the rest.

Will the law succeed to reduce plastic garbage disposal? It most likely will. Yet, the law only focuses on straws. Plastic cups, bottles, and bags are not within the scope. So, a street vendor could switch to plastic cups as a cheaper option over biodegradable straws.

Moreover, basic measures used by other countries and Brazilian cities, such as the charge for plastic bags in commerce, is not a law in Rio de Janeiro.

These two aspects of Rio’s legislature demonstrate the hypocrisy embed on the ban. While some people are pleased with the governmental concern over the environment, others believe that the ban brings more problems than benefits.

People may adapt their behavior to other options of plastics. Photo: Open source

No straws and no change in behavior.

Will the ban change people’s behavior? Probably not as much as policymakers expect. While the ban cuts off demand for plastic straws from sellers, there are no incentives for consumers not to bring along their own plastic straws for their personal use.

Moreover, the ban does not modify people’s views on waste disposal and do not encourage them to adopt greener behaviors overall. Consumers can simply ask for their drinks to be served in plastic cups.

A real-life example of the inefficiency of punitive laws to change people’s behavior is the Zero Waste Program. Started in 2013 in Rio, the law aimed to incentivize appropriate waste disposal by fining litterbugs.

The law increases tax revenues during festive holidays, such as Carnival and New Year’s Eve, but fails to change citizens’ environmental perspective. Once police inspectors, people revert to their default behavior and litter.

In addition, it is difficult to enforce the rule. Officers need to provide proof – sometimes even pictorial – of the litterer’s act to fine him or her.

The aftermath of a New Year’s Eve celebration Rio de Janeiro.  Photos: Jorge Hely/Brazil Photo Press

Learning from other countries.

The UK has started a plan to ban the distribution and sale of single-use plastics in straws, cotton buds, and stirrers. As plastic straws will not be made available anywhere in the country, people will be forced to adapt to a greener habit.

The British were also successful in reducing 86% of plastic bags. A small charge for plastic bags was effective to make customers rethink their practice and reduce their use of the product.

Singapore also minds plastic wastes. Still, a project to reduce plastic straws backfired. The National University of Singapore (NUS) banned the use of straws on campus through a project called iReject. Unfortunately, NUS failed to seek students’ opinions prior to the ban and initialized the project abruptly through an email a day before the ban started. Students responded saying that the plastic waste should be collected and handled correctly and not forbidden. As a protest, one student even purchased 1000 straws, only to throw them away.

Rio can learn from these empirical examples. Successful policies not only inspire a greener lifestyle and actions, but they also sustain a greener culture over time. To accomplish that, policymakers should consider citizens’ present preferences and routines.

What’s next for Rio?

Local policymakers in Rio are right to be alarmed at the increase of pollution on land and marine ecosystems. A study showed that 41% of Brazilian cities have recycling programs and only 10% of potentially recyclable materials are collected.

However, instead of focusing on punishing a negative externality, perhaps the direction should be to reward actions with positive impacts.

Now that the law is already in effect, councilors should think of adding new features to the ban. They should consider how to treat other disposals such as cups, dishes, and cutlery made plastic. In addition, the policy to charge for plastic bags is far overdue.

To finish, policymakers not only from Rio but from the whole country should try to understand people’s behavior prior to designing policies. At the same time, the Brazilian people should adapt their daily habits to greener alternatives.


Note to the reader: For more information on how to adopt greener habits look here. For options of personal-use straws see this. Get more inspiration on behavioral change in environmental problems with this list.

  • Conke, L. S., & do Nascimento, E. P. (2018). A coleta seletiva nas pesquisas brasileiras: uma avaliação metodológica. Revista Brasileira de Gestão Urbana, 10(1).
  • Laitos, J. G., & Wolongevicz, L. J. (2014). Why Environmental Laws Fail. Wm. & Mary Envtl. L. & Pol’y Rev., 39, 1.

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