Paper Straws are a Distraction

Evidence-based climate actions for most people.

June 15, 2019

I worry that actions most promoted to help the environment aren’t the best ones we could take. And that, whilst we congratulate ourselves for using paper straws, moral licensing1 lets us avoid higher impact actions.

I did a little research into I could do better to help the environment and keep the turtles happy:

Highest impact actions for most people

The research2 suggests the best thing we can do as individuals are, in order:

  1. Have one fewer child (massively higher impact than the rest)
  2. Live car free
  3. Avoid one round-trip transatlantic flight
  4. Buy green energy3
  5. Go vegan - eat a plant-based diet

These are pretty different from the common recommendations of recycling and switching off lightbulbs. I’m pretty bad at some of them (transatlantic flights), and am easily following others (currently both child and car free). I’m veggie, but not yet vegan.

It surprises me there’s not more campaigning for switching to green energy, as it seems the easiest of that list to do.

Heuristics for the environment?

I’d like better heuristics for which actions are best for the environment. Is a paper or plastic bag better?4 Is my cotton bag doing any good?5 Is regular washing of reusable makeup pads better than just buying wipes? Or are the effects so tiny that they’re not worth the effort versus getting used to the taste of vegan cheese?6

If you have any, I’d love to hear them on Twitter.

Update 5th July 2019: The Guardian has published a list of recycling heuristics.


  1. When people allow themselves to do something bad, after doing something good - more detail on moral licensing.

  2. Wynes & Nicholas, 2017 Paper, or nice infographic summaries, further interesting discussion in this Vox article.

  3. In the UK, for instance Bulb is green, and appears both cheapest and most user-friendly (that link will get you a discount).

  4. This seems to be non-obvious: ‘Plastic or paper: Which bag is greener? - BBC’

  5. Cotton bags get milkshake-ducked by Quartz

  6. The answer seems to be yes: switching from plastic bags to reusable bags “is less than 1% as effective as a year without eating meat” Wynes & Nicholas, 2017 Paper.

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