In the US alone over 500 million straws are used every day. Every single day. Although plastic straws are not the biggest polluters when it comes to plastic trash, they are surely unnecessary for most beverage consumption. Because of their small size and light weight, they often don´t make it into recycling bins. Their size also makes them one of the most dangerous pieces of trash because they entangle marine animals and are consumed by fish. Like we could see in a video that went viral in 2015 shows in which a straw got stuck in a turtle´s nose.
Several campaigns, like Straws Suck, The Last Plastic Straw, OneLessStraw and #stopsucking, (a campaign set up by NGO The Lonely Whale Foundation co-founded by actor Adrian Grenier) aim to change consumers´ behavior and their habits and say no to straws. This is different form other efforts, in which activists are seeking to change laws or regulations, e.g. banning plastics. The plastics industry opposes these bans as much as they can. Bag manufacturers have persuaded lawmakers in Florida, Missouri, Idaho, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Indiana to pass legislation outlawing the bag bans.
Such opposition has not worked in Seattle. This city will ban plastic straws and utensils as of July 2018. All businesses that sell food or drinks must offer compostable or recyclable options, or not serve them at all, as part of a citywide ordinance to limit plastic waste across the city. About 200 retailers have already agreed to make the switch in September of 2017 as part of an industry-led campaign, called “Strawless in Seattle,” to prevent the plastic from polluting ocean waters and threatening marine life. Serving plastic straws only upon request would save money. Think of restaurants and bars needing to buy fewer straws, but also think of the savings in waste hauling, landfill, plastic cleanup etc.
An alternative to plastic straws is straws made from compostable biomass, like vegetable starch, cane sugar and lactic acid. Polylactic Acid (PLA) is a bioplastic generally derived from animal-feed corn that can be used to not only make straws, but also cold drink cups and takeout containers. The pros of these bioplastics are:
1. they are made from a renewable source
2. they are compostable
3. they do not produce toxic fumes if incinerated
4. they offer the same level of utility and sanitation as conventional plastics
But there are also cons:
1. large fields of crops are needed for the production
2. it is typically made of genetically modified corn. The future costs of genetic modification (and the associated pesticides) to the environment and human health are still largely unknown.
3. they are only compostable in a commercial composting facility (in a landfill it takes 100 to 1.000 years to decompose, according to analysts)
4. improperly disposed PLA plastics can contaminate recycling processes (it needs to go to a composting facility, of which there are currently only 113 across the U.S.)
So, while PLA might have a bright future as an alternative to regular plastics, it is still better to switch to reusable products.
What can we do in the meantime? Go strawless! Simply ask for no straws at bars and restaurants, encourage bars and restaurants to only serve straws upon request (maybe by leaving these little cards). If you have kids that love to drink with a straw, or you like to drink your cocktail with one, bring your own! There are so many different kinds:
More on plastic straws