The day I lost my sh*t over a straw

Everyone was going to get what they wanted. The burger restaurant we were eating at in New York had meat for Sarah and Matt, and a vegan burger for me. I could feel smugly self-righteous while graciously tolerating my companions’ dietary choices.

The fact that the restaurant was catering to me made me feel that my values were being acknowledged. This was reinforced by posters all around the restaurant pointing out that 500 million plastic straws are produced in the USA every year, and that this restaurant was doing its bit by not serving them.

This is my kind of restaurant, I thought. I very much enjoyed my Beyond Meat burger, designed in a lab using vegetables to replicate the taste and look of beef, even to the point of oozing beetroot juice to imitate blood.

It was delicious. For dessert, I ordered an avocado and lime shake with vegan ice cream.

The smiling waiter placed it in front of me, and set a straw next to it wrapped in plastic.

A straw. A plastic straw. What?! I felt the heat of righteous indignation boiling up inside of me. I had to say something. I couldn’t let this fly.

I looked from the straw to the waiter.

- ‘Is this a plastic straw?!’ I demanded. I’m sure my contained, British rage was still palpable.- ‘Yes’, he said sheepishly.- ‘You’ve got posters all around your restaurant saying that you don’t use them because they’re bad for the environment. That’s so hypocritical!’- ‘Well, we say we’ll give you one if you ask for one.’- ‘I didn’t ask for one!’

The suggestion that I was the cause of this aquatic ecocide really had me fuming.

- ‘I thought you might need it’, he said defensively.- ‘No, I don’t’, I retorted, slurping the thick green goop from the glass with my mouth, demonstrating that I was clearly not reliant on a straw.- ‘Okay, I’ll take it away’, and he walked off.- ‘He’s only doing his job’, said Matt, looking shell-shocked.- ‘Well, it was so hypocritical, I had to say something.’

It was like I’d let off a stink bomb that had enveloped everyone in a cloud of negativity, tension and anger. It also left me feeling, not for the first time in my life, that it was me against the world. Me against the cynical, duplicitous corporations and the apathetic hoi polloi. Why weren’t my friends as angry and willing to act as I was? They should have been!

The hypocrite in the mirror

But taking a step back and viewing the situation with a cooler head, Sarah and Matt are deeply caring people. They don’t want the oceans to be polluted by plastic either and I’m sure the waiter didn’t.

Had my actions saved even a single fish? No.

And was I really so certain of my moral high ground?

Well, in order to be eating a plastic-free plant-based meal in New York, I had taken a transatlantic flight, emitting about 1.2 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

And I dread to think how much plastic I had thrown away up to that point in my life. How could I get so angry about someone doing what I’ve done countless times myself?

Perhaps I was seeing my own hypocrisy mirrored back at me. Or perhaps it was exasperation at the fact that a lot of people can’t even commit to relatively trivial actions to help the environment.

As an ‘environmentalist’, you accumulate all manner of rules for how people should behave if they really gave a damn, and get angry when people flout them. It’s a very judgmental way to live.

What should I do next time?

On reflection, I do want to be the kind of person who speaks up when they see something happening that they don’t agree with. However, next time, I would like to take a breath and question my assumption that this is happening because the person or company is acting with mal-intent.

I recently heard Alain de Botton say that when you speak angrily, the other person shuts off to what you have to say, and reacts with either defence or aggression. It becomes a lose-lose situation.

I’ve noticed that I get angry that they’re angry, and then they get angry that I’m angry that they’re angry, and it becomes an insane, raging hall of mirrors.

Rather than reacting with, ‘I’m so outraged that you did this’, I’d like to respond with ‘I’m curious why you did this’.

I wonder if I would find it difficult to get so angry next time, having acknowledged my own hypocrisy.