Why are Plastic Straws Bad and What are the Alernatives?

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Do you still use a plastic straw to drink from a glass or take a sip of your favorite takeaway beverage? We've all probably used one at some point in our lives, but now is definitely the time to rethink that habit.

Plastic straws are one of the most common forms of pollution found on beaches and in oceans all over the world. They're bad for the environment, kill marine life and damage human health.

Even if you can't go zero waste entirely, it's high time we all ended our reliance on single use plastics.

Today we'll examine all the reasons why plastic straws are bad, and look what alternatives are available and what we can all do to help.

Key Facts About Single Use Plastic Straws

500 million
At least 500 million straws are used in the US every day
150 million
Metric tons of plastic currently in our oceans, rivers and waterways

Additional metric tons of plastic goes into the sea every year
7th most common
Type of plastic waste collected on the world's beaches
Over 100,000
Marine mammals are killed by plastic pollution every year
200 Years
A plastic straw can take up to 200 years to decompose
why plastic straws are not recycled

Why Can't Plastic Straws be Recycled?

Most plastic straws are made from polypropylene (PP). It is now possible to recycle this type of plastic, however it is notoriously difficult to do. Studies suggest only 1% of PP is actually recycled, and the rest goes to landfill.

What's more, the size and shape of plastic straws is a problem for most recycling schemes. A typical mechanical recycling sorter can't pick out something as small as a plastic straw, so they often don't get picked up and fall through the filters to mix with other materials.

Polypropylene plastic is not biodegradable. It typically takes between 20 and 30 years to fully degrade, and while that is quicker than other types of plastic, it's still an environmental disaster.

Like other plastics, PP leaches harmful chemicals into the soil or ocean while it breaks down, and has other more immediate consequences for aquatic life.

plastic in the ocean

Why are Plastic Straws Bad for the Ocean?

You probably already know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an immense area of plastic waste which is made up of discarded fishing gear, single use plastics and other marine debris.

It's currently twice the size of Texas, and growing every year as more and more plastic gets dumped into our oceans.

Many marine creatures, particularly mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals, eat plastic because to them it looks like food. Other types of marine wildlife die from getting tangled up in plastics and either drown or starve.

PNAS estimate that 99% of sea birds will have ingested plastic by the year 2050.

But marine biologists report that plastic straws are particularly hazardous to sea turtles.

How Do They Kill Sea Turtles?

This issue was highlighted a few years ago with a viral video which showed a sea turtle with a plastic straw wedged in its nostril.

Sea turtles don't have great eyesight, so to them a plastic straw can look like food. When a sea turtle inevitably ingests the plastic, it can't break down and stays in its stomach, meaning the turtle can believe it is full and doesn't need to eat.

Tragically, this means that many sea turtles die of malnutrition or starvation, with their stomachs full of our plastic.

how plastic is harmful to human health

How are Plastic Straws Harmful to Humans?

If the shocking effect on marine life doesn't move you, then maybe this will.

There are many examples of plastics getting into the human food chain. So you may end up eating your own plastic waste yourself.

Microplastics have been found inside the fish and shellfish that are caught for us to eat. Chemicals from plastic in the water table also leach out, which is why plastic fibres have been found in many samples of the tap water we drink.

The more single use plastic we throw away, the more likely it is to come back and get served back to us in our drinks or on our dinner plates.

Should Disposable Plastic Straws be Banned?

Plastic straws are a cause of unnecessary plastic pollution, since there are several perfectly good alternatives available (see below). They're bad for the environment and for human health, and there's no real benefit to using them.

So in my opinion, yes plastic straws should be banned, and the sooner the better.

Which Places have Banned Plastic Straws Already?

Plastic straw bans are becoming more common in various cities, states and countries around the world. Some notable examples are:

  • Seattle, Washington (2018)
  • Washington DC (2019)
  • Miami Beach, FL (2019)
  • England, UK (2020)

There are partial plastic bans in place in Montana, Oregon, California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Virginia, New York, New Jersey, Florida and South Carolina.

In some of these locations, such as New York City, plastic straws are only available if a customer specifically requests one.

plastic straw alternatives

What are the Alternatives to Plastic Straws?

Many of us have already stopped using plastic bags (which are just as bad), in favour of a reusable alternative. We've also ditched plastic bottles and replaced them with reusable ones.

So why not do the same for straws?

By choosing a reusable straw you can reduce waste and save money. There are many types of reusable straws available.

Metal Straws

Many people are switching to reusable metal straws instead. A metal straw is usually made from stainless steel and is a good alternative to plastic. Metal straws are eco-friendly, easy to carry, easy to clean and will literally last a lifetime.

Remember that metal does conduct heat, so metal straws are not usually suitable for hot drinks (unless you allow the drink to cool first). Many bars and restaurants are starting to use a metal straw for soft drinks and cocktails, but of course you can always carry your own.

Bamboo Straws

Bamboo straws don't conduct heat, so they are suitable for both hot and cold drinks. They're equally easy to carry, but slightly harder to clean.

Paper Straws

Paper straws are biodegradable, only taking a few weeks to decompose. So they can be thrown in your paper recycling bin. Technically a paper straw is reusable, but realistically you can only use it a few times before it gets too soggy.

Paper straws are available in the vast majority of food stores and supermarkets, and are also given out by an increasing number of restaurants, cafes and coffee shops.

Glass Straws

Glass straws are reusable, easy to clean, dishwasher safe and hypoallergenic, meaning they are suitable for everyone to use. Although they are tough, glass by its nature is breakable so handle with care.

Compostable straws

PLA (polylactic acid) compostable plastic straws are single use straws made from non toxic materials, mainly plant extracts.

However, the main problem with compostable plastic straws is that most people don't dispose of them correctly.

Despite the name, compostable straws don't actually biodegrade in landfill or in your backyard compost pile. They need proper commercial composting or recycling facilities.

Most people don't realise this, and they get thrown straight into our trash cans due to human error. When this happens, they're really no better than regular PP plastic straws.

No Straw At All

Probably the simplest alternative is to stop using a straw altogether.

Straws have become an accepted part of our everyday lives but the truth is we don't really need them.

We all drink straight from cups at our local coffee shop, or beers straight from the glass in our local bar. So why the obsession with straws for other types of drinks?

Why not try to go for just one week without using a straw, just as a trial? Once you get used to it, you'll probably never go back.

What Can I do to Help?

As you can see, there are many reasons why straws and other single use plastics are bad. In fact I feel bad is an understatement. What they really are is hazardous - to our health, to our marine environment, and to the entire planet.

Some steps have already been taken to stop the problem getting any worse, but these measures can only be successful if we all support them.

But it doesn't require much effort. We can all play our part.

You don't have to march to congress to join the anti straw movement. Simply changing a few of your daily habits will make a huge difference.

Next time you're offered a single use plastic straw, politely decline.

Choose metal, glass or paper straws if possible, or compostable plastic straws if you really can't find a suitable alternative. But if you do this, remember to dispose of it correctly.

Or as I mentioned earlier, the very best thing you could do is to get out of the habit of using straws at all.

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Arabella Ruiz is a senior researcher at The Roundup. She lives in San Antonio, Texas and has been interested in the environment from an early age. Arabella loves to campaign for environmental causes and fundraise for charities that aim to preserve wildlife habitat, protect endangered species or help people with climate change problems.
Arabella Ruiz
Arabella Ruiz is a senior researcher at The Roundup. She lives in San Antonio, Texas and has been interested in the environment from an early age. Arabella loves to campaign for environmental causes and fundraise for charities that aim to preserve wildlife habitat, protect endangered species or help people with climate change problems.

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