Who Really Needs Plastic Drinking Straws?
Humans like straws. Proof of this goes back 5,000 years when ancient Sumerians shared beverages with drinking tubes made of stones and metals. In 1888, a patent on paper straws kicked off innovation that led to the mass production of plastic straws in the 1960s.
But do we really need straws? For some people, such as those with autism, tremors, and physical limitations, the answer is yes. Hospitals were a large supporter of the flexible plastic straw design that emerged in the 1930s, which made it easier for patients to drink liquids.
For those who can say “no” to straws, the solution sounds simple, but there are some nuances. Jessica Kooiman, sustainability blogger at Impact For Good shares a tip for avoiding straws when dining out. “I scope out the restaurant when I walk in, and if everyone has a straw, I assume they put the straw in the drink before they hand it to you.” Her pre-order observation determines whether she specifies “no straw, please” with her order. When it arrives, she uses her own straw or sips without.
After decades of being slipped into to-go cups without a second thought, the tides have turned on single-use plastic straws. Increasing awareness about plastic pollution has made them a target to be eliminated, and for good reason.
What to Do With Plastic Straws: Recycle, Reduce, or Replace?
Straws are plastic so they can be recycled, right? Wrong. We can blame the current state of plastic straw affairs on this assumption, but the secret is out.
Standard plastic straws are commonly made from the plastic resin polypropylene, plus fillers and additives. As a #5 plastic, polypropylene is recyclable, and increasingly accepted in curbside recycling programs. Straws are the exception though. Due to their shape and size, they fall through the cracks of recycling machinery.
So where do all those straws end up, rejected by recycling or otherwise?
Anything recycling systems can’t accept is considered trash and is sent to landfills where it takes each plastic straw about 200 years to break down. But a large number of straws get blown out of the garbage or are littered, then end up adding to ocean plastic pollution. Here, the breakdown process takes 500 years.
Don’t get it wrong though—these straws aren’t decomposing like cardboard. Plastic is not an organic material, so broken down plastic gets churned into microplastic, which is showing up everywhere, including in our drinking water and food system.
Since there’s no way to safely dispose of straws, reducing and replacing them is the best solution.
Plastic Straw Alternatives in Restaurants
Paper straws are making a comeback as the single-use straw of choice. This time they have improved durability thanks to advanced protective coatings, plus the same features people love about plastic such as the “bendy” design and larger sizes for bubble tea.
Before paper straws, there were straw straws. More specifically, rye stalks were common. Today, wheatgrass is more readily available and wheat stems are processed into drinking straws. Restaurants are taking advantage of this option, but paper straws are the most popular.
As restaurants adopt straw alternatives, they’re also adopting the policy to only provide straws upon request. This helps balance the increased cost of non-plastic straws but also cuts down on overall waste. Aardvark straws, the world’s top producer of paper straws, states on their website that offering straws upon request only cuts straw consumption by 40%.
Best Reusable Straw Option
Are you ready to embrace eco-friendly reusable straws? Here is our option:
Cleaning and Maintenance
Your new straw comes with its own hygiene routine. Special straw cleaning brushes ensure any residue gets scrubbed out. Rinsing your straw after using it is also a good habit. Dishwashing may or may not be recommended, so be sure to check the instructions.
But what about taking your straw out for dinner? Sticking a naked straw in your purse or pocket isn’t sanitary.
How Saying ‘No Thanks’ Makes a Difference
Eliminating straws isn’t the only solution, but it will send a clear message to the places where we dine. “Since we’re the customers, we hold the power. Us saying no is us placing our vote for what we want in the world, and companies are paying attention to that,” explains Kooiman, who also holds a bachelor’s of business administration degree in marketing.
Passing on the plastic in a public setting opens the door to start a much-needed conversation while helping rewire your plastic consumption habits. You can always find eco-friendly alternatives to plastic.
Take It One Straw At a Time
Light and little plastic straws entered the world without any plan for properly disposing of them, but now we know they aren’t a sustainable option. Use your awareness to empower yourself and others to pass on single-use straws. Every time this choice is made, the market will continue to shift toward sustainable business practices. Every straw turned down is one more vote for a planet free of plastic pollution.