In recent years, the discussion about plastic straws has been on the rise. Here is a mind-blowing fact: Each day, in the US, we use enough single-use drinking straws to wrap around our planet 2.5 times. And this number only refers to the US! I find it impossible to even imagine such a high number of plastic straws and it is a very poignant example of how wasteful we humans can be.
Disposable drinking straws get used for a few minutes, then thrown in the trash. They can never be fully recycled, they stay around for hundreds of years, and they never completely degrade.
This is already a good reason why we should stop using plastic straws, but the easiest reason is that we simply don’t need them.
The use of some plastics in our life is hard to avoid or imagine away, but single-use plastic straws are certainly not even close to being in that category, and their use can easily be reduced to zero.
To be sure, sometimes straws are necessary for people with disabilities, or for people during sicknesses or after surgeries, and people with facial hair often use them to keep the liquid they’re drinking from getting all over. And admittedly, they can be fun to use, especially for kids (my husband remembers rolling them up to form a small little bubble that someone else can flick to create a popping sound, something he and his friends loved to do at fast food restaurants as kids). However, there are many alternatives to plastic straws that can fill in perfectly well in most cases, as I discuss in detail below.
Best of all, if someone sees you using it, they might get curious and ask you about it, giving you a chance to spread the word about the “no straw” movement. This is one of the most important ways change can happen – individuals like you and me make choices, the word starts to spread, and before you know it you have a “movement”. Today, for example, we see a lot of companies moving towards eliminating plastic straws altogether or offering them to customers only on request. Those are great steps, and they have been the result of individuals (their customers) expressing their commitments to being straw-free.
Now that we know that going straw-free is easy, let’s explore a bit more about why it’s important.
How are straws affecting the ocean?
With billions straws thrown away each day, it’s no surprise that millions of them end up in the ocean. These straws never completely break down and are often seen as food by sea animals such as birds, turtles, and fish. This can lead to injury or death, such as death by suffocation. (You may have seen the quite distressing video where researchers pulled a plastic straw out of a turtle’s nostril. https://youtu.be/d2J2qdOrW44)
Moreover, the parts of straws that do break down become micro plastics that then end up in stomachs of sea animals, and increasing their mortality rate by 50%.
What are some alternatives to plastic straws?
As I acknowledged above, for many people, such as those with disabilities, life would be far more difficult without straws, and for many others they are convenient and enjoyable. But there are alternatives to the harmful plastic straws that can work just as well, if not better.
Reusable options are great because they are, well, reusable, and thus less wasteful.
1. Stainless steel straws
Stainless steel straws are the most durable and popular reusable option. They are inexpensive, come in many different colors and shapes, and can substitute for almost any use a plastic straw would have (okay, you can’t do the twist-flick-and-pop gag my husband and his friends used to do, but that’s a small price to pay, right?).
And kids love them – my kids had fun picking their “own” that they can use anytime they would otherwise want to use a plastic one. You can just stash one or two in a purse or backpack, a glove compartment, and keep a few in the utensil drawer and there will never be a need for the plastic straws again.
They can be put in the dishwasher, however, to properly clean on the inside a suitable brush should be used. They also conduct heat, so they might not be suitable for hot drinks (though few people use straws for hot drinks anyway since that is a guaranteed way to burn your mouth).
2. Glass straws
Glass straws are a great alternative to plastic since they are reusable, dishwasher safe, and don’t contain toxins. However, if they are not shatter resistant they are easily breakable as opposed to stainless steel straws.
3. Silicone straws
If you like to bite down on your straw the silicone straw might be your way to go. It’s durable, but could be hard to clean. Though a brush might work for them as well.
4. Bamboo straws
Imagine a great cocktail, decorated with fruit and a bamboo straw. It will put your straight into vacation mood.
Bamboo straws straddle the line between reusable and non-reusable alternatives. They don’t last as long as stainless steel, glass, or silicone straws, but bamboo is a highly renewable source, and they are biodegradable. Also, drinking through bamboo straw can have a woody taste, and they are reputed to be hard to clean.
Single-use alternatives are not as ideal as reusable ones since they involve more waste, but they are far superior to the normal plastic straws for businesses and occasions that need them.
5. Paper straws
Paper straws are cheap to produce and break down fast or, even better, can be composted. However, a big downside is that they can get soggy. And, of course, they use paper, which requires trees.
6. Biodegradable plastic straws
In recent years, as people have become more aware of the harms posed by plastic straws, some companies have started producing biodegradable plastic straws. These are usually made from plant products, such fruit peels. They look and feel like conventional plastic straws, and I have found them in my neighborhood coffee shop and noticed little difference. Ideally, they should be composted, where they can break down in as little as 12 weeks. If, however, they end up in the landfill or oceans and not the compost, they will take much longer to biodegrade and may cause similar problems to conventional plastic straws.
The other major downside to them, as to many products that attempt to “replicate” the experience of living in a wasteful, consumerist society without the harmful impacts, is that they are far more expensive.
We may end up having to ask questions that force us to examine our priorities: Do we want a cheap drink with a straw, even if that involves waste and contributing to environmental degradation? Would we be willing to pay more for our drink if we can still have a straw but not contribute as much to waste and environmental degradation? Or would we rather have a cheaper drink and no straw?
Different people will answer these questions in their own ways, depending on their own needs, priorities, and habits.
Most people who have already read this far probably care about the impact that our choices have on the environment, want to live conscientiously and avoid wastefulness. Avoiding conventional plastic straws, whether by switching to an alternative or using no straws at all, is one of those small, easy choices that everyone can make, and if we all did so, the benefits would be enormous!