If you’ve read a recent article about Starbucks, Marriott or Seattle banning plastic straws, you might have come across a striking statistic: Americans use about 500 million straws each day.
But consider the source: The number is based on research conducted years ago by an enterprising 9-year-old Vermont boy named Milo Cress.
Professional estimates of straw usage are hard, but not impossible, to find. Yet, the number this fourth grader came up with in 2011, as part of a personal environmental conservation campaign, has proved surprisingly durable, working its way to the heart of the debate over plastic straws.
“It is honestly a little surprising,” said Mr. Cress, who turned 17 on Thursday. “I came up with this statistic because I couldn’t find anything else about it. If there are other statistics on how many straws we use that are based on more rigorous research than the research that I did, I’m happy to embrace those.”
Fact check: The claim that 500 million straws are used by Americans is an estimate above the ranges of more rigorous studies. Market research firms put the figure between 170 million and 390 million per day, or 63 billion to 142 billion straws per year.
One market research firm, Freedonia Group, determined that the nation used about 390 million straws a day last year. Another, Technomic, puts the number closer to 170 million, though that count excludes some types of straws.
But Mr. Cress, who then lived in Burlington, Vt., had access to neither of those figures when he developed his estimate in 2011, when he started “Be Straw Free,” a campaign to persuade restaurants to offer straws optionally rather than automatically.
After failing to find reliable statistics online about straw usage, he decided to call a handful of manufacturers himself.
“The average of those was 500 million,” he said, adding that, being 9, he had not thought to document the process closely. “It’s likely that the number has changed since then, and I would hope that the number has gone down.”
His anti-waste campaign received early coverage from local media in Vermont, but soon the fourth grader’s campaign was featured by outlets across the country, earning wide coverage for his cause — and the startling statistic.
The statistic continued to circulate steadily, accelerating this year as big businesses stopped using plastic straws and local governments began banning them. Scrutiny of the figure soon followed, particularly from publications with a libertarian or conservative bent, such as Reason magazine, National Review and Fox News.
For its part, Eco-Cycle has tried to verify the statistic, but its search turned up little: “What we got was very frustrated,” said Harlin Savage, communications director for the nonprofit.
The estimates were locked away inside expensive research reports published by consulting firms, which Eco-Cycle could not afford to buy.
Technomic, a firm that focuses on the food service market, recently estimated that nearly 63 billion straws were used last year in the food service industry, which includes restaurants, coffee shops, fast food chains, convenience stores, and cafeterias in hospitals, nursing homes and schools.
That figure, just over 170 million straws per day, does not include those purchased for home use or attached to juice boxes, among other uses. But, even if it did, it’s unlikely that the estimate would be as high as 500 million, said David Henkes, a senior principal at the firm.
“I don’t believe that consumers are using another couple hundred million straws at home every day,” he said.
Freedonia Group, a market research firm that covers a broad range of industries, arrived at a higher estimate: 142 billion straws last year, or 390 million per day.
For both firms, rigorous analysis is critical, as clients rely on the data they provide to make business and investment decisions.
The estimates, part of broader reports on food service products, relied on interviews with businesses all along the supply chain, from manufacturers of disposable packaging to distributors to customers. They represent months of work by teams that included analysts and economic experts.
The Foodservice Packaging Institute, an 85-year-old trade association, would not share its internal figures, saying only that it estimates that fewer than 250 million straws are used each day, within the range given by the consultants.
But that’s besides the point, the institute’s president, Lynn Dyer, said in an email.
“Whether it’s 500 million or 500 a day, we shouldn’t lose sight of the real issue: Straws should be disposed of properly and should never, ever be littered on land or in waterways,” she said.
Mr. Cress, who will be a high school senior this fall in Shelburne, Vt., agrees that the precise number is less important than the waste: “We use far too many straws than we need to, and really almost any number is higher than it needs to be.”