Plastic straws are a problem. They are filling up landfills but worse yet they are making their way into the oceans and posing a major threat to marine life. There are some scientists who believe that at our current rate of consumption, by 2050 there could be more straws in the ocean than there are fish.
Straws float at or near the surface, looking like tasty morsels for hungry sea creatures, and once ingested they can cause injury, illness and death for these animals. They are particularly problematic for birds and sea turtles, though whales and even sharks that have washed up on beaches have been found to have large quantities of plastic – including straws – inside of them. Plastics in our oceans are a big problem because they never go away.
Technically speaking, plastic straws can be recycled. Unfortunately, though hundreds of millions of straws are used and then thrown away each day, the sad reality is that plastic straws very rarely make it through the waste chain to recycling centers.
One problem is that they are very small and thin, and they are often soiled with food and beverages. Soiled plastics are not accepted, so the soiled straws are thrown away.
Even when they do make it to recycling centers, many recyclers do not accept straws for recycling because they can damage machinery because they are so small. They can make their way down inside machinery and cause problems, and so recycling centers ban them completely.
Plastic Straws Breaking Down
Plastic straws don’t remain solid forever but they don’t biodegrade. Plastic straws are a number 5 plastic, which means that they can be recycled but they will not break down on their own.
Since they are so small, these straws have a tendency to poke holes in trash bags and find their way onto sidewalks and gutters and eventually they end up in landfills and bodies of water.
Over time, they will break into smaller pieces, called microplastics.
Microplastics are a problem because they remain in the ecosystem forever. Whether they are in the ocean, in rivers, lakes, streams or on land, they will always be there. That means that fish and wildlife consume them, which can be harmful for them, and microplastics can also make it back into the human food chain when humans eat animals that have consumed microplastics.
In essence, it is a vicious cycle and the damage will never go away.
Other Options to Plastic Straws
The quest to find sustainable solutions for the straw problem is not an easy one.
Hundreds of millions of straws are consumed daily. They are used in coffee shops, fast food restaurants, theme parks, bars, and hospitals. Hospitals are notable because there are many people who need straws in order to drink liquids, so there must be a viable option for groups of people who need them while also providing an option for people who like to use them.
Paper straws have slowly been integrating into daily use, but for drink enthusiasts, there is nothing worse than trying to drink a favorite beverage through a quickly deteriorating paper straw. They only last so long, so if you like to leisurely sip your soda then you will notice that it is falling apart halfway through.
Paper straws have also not made any friends at bars. Las Vegas recently passed an ordinance against plastic straws and bar patrons hate the paper versions because they break down so quickly and drinks do not taste the same with paper.
While paper straws do eliminate the problem of microplastics, they require a lot of energy to produce so they are not a highly sustainable alternative. However, they are better than plastic straws.
Compostable Plastic Straws
A better solution comes with plastic straws that are made to be compostable. They will break down in landfills, completely on their own, within six months.
There are several types of compostable straws available, and all have some form of plant material at their core. PLA (polylactic acid plastic) is a bioplastic polymer made of corn starch. There are also compostable straws made from sugar cane and even bamboo.
The benefit to compostable straws is that they will break down in a relatively short period of time and they will not release harmful microplastics into the environment. They are also sturdier than paper straws so they are much more reliable.
The downfall is that compostable straws will take months to decompose, so they still pose a risk to marine life until they break down completely.
Though getting rid of straws is the absolute best option all around, there is yet another option that is possibly a more sustainable alternative to plastic, paper and compostable straws: Reusable straws.
There is a growing market for reusable straws now that people are trying to find new ways to consume their beverages. Reusable straws are popping up in retail markets, from Walmart to Macy’s and everywhere in between. Some are made from washable silicone while others are made from stainless steel. Many of these reusable straws even come with their own tiny bottle brushes for use in keeping them clean and sanitary between uses.
The upside, of course, is that these silicone and stainless steel straws can be used over and over again in both hot and cold beverages. (Of course, you will want to be cautious using stainless steel with very hot drinks)
The downside is that these straws place the oneness upon you to not only bring them with you but to remember to bring them with you. (It is hard enough for some people to remember reusable shopping bags!) Women can pack them in purses, but men will be hard-pressed to find ways to travel with them outside of packing them in gym bags or briefcases or keeping them in the car. (However, silicone straws are very flexible and can be tucked into a pocket)
A Combination Of Options
The best practice would seem to be a combination of options. Restaurants can stop providing straws unless they are requested. Paper or compostable straws can be offered everywhere that number 5 plastic straws are used, and reusable straws can fill in the gaps when possible.
Though recycling centers do not generally accept plastic straws, it could be possible to recycle them by putting the straws inside larger number 5 plastic containers so they do not fall out. This may work, or it may not. Either way, you will not know because the decision to recycle them will be made at the recycling center itself. Even if they do not recycle them, they will remain contained so that they do not cause problems for marine life.
An Unfortunate Legacy
Plastic straws have been around for decades and that is why we have such a big problem with them. With so many options available to us, there is no reason that we continue to use the harmful number 5 plastic straws.
The sad reality is that plastic straws are cheap and much more easily accessible all over the world, so even if the United States stops using them, the damage will continue until the world takes notice.
Every little bit helps, though, so the fewer straws that are used, the better for the planet will be in the long run until they are eventually outlawed worldwide.