Can We Stop Using Paper Straws Now?
Let’s just cut to the chase — we have all had disappointing experiences with paper straws. Some hold up better than others, but most of the time it’s a small miracle if one lasts long enough to finish a beverage. It seems counterintuitive that a device that was designed to transport a drink from point A to point B begins to dissolve when immersed in liquid, but alas, this is the world we live in.
Many have had the misfortune of seeing the (not so slow) unravelling of their paper straw, until it has lost so much structural integrity that the straw must either be replaced or the drinker decides to sip straight from the cup — so why are we still putting up with it?
Why did we start using paper straws
Paper straws became the go-to solution to the recently abhorred plastic straw during the war on plastics. Many of us know that plastic is bad for our planet and a lot ends up in the ocean where it suffocates and poisons birds, orcas and everything in between.
It is estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the world’s waterways each year, but despite the countless articles about the damage that plastic straws are doing to the turtles, they make up only 0.025 percent of the plastic in the oceans.
Most people would agree that any amount of plastic in our environment, even a small proportion, needs to be reduced and initiatives with this aim should be encouraged — but we our doing ourselves a disservice by equating a ban on plastic straws to a dramatic reduction on plastic pollution. It is great to stop thousands of plastic straws from entering our oceans, but what do we do next when that doesn’t even put a dent in the overall plastic problem.
Paper straws may be a ‘greener’ option than plastic, but they are still single-use consumer items that require resources to produce and have a questionable path when disposed of. Paper products generally use more energy and resources in the manufacturing process than plastic products. The life of a paper straw starts as a tree, which is (hopefully sustainably) grown, cut down, pulped and pressed into a tube. The tube is then shipped — using fossil fuels— to shops, restaurants and cafes where it awaits its fate as a drinking vessel. Once chosen, the paper straw is used for hopefully the entirety of a drink (but let’s be honest, that’s not guaranteed) before being thrown away.
One of the selling points of paper straws is that they are biodegradable, but what is not communicated is that this is only under the right conditions. Once an item is sent to a landfill, whether paper or plastic, its decomposition time is extended. In general, organic materials are able to biodegrade thanks to other living organisms such as bacteria, fungi and microbes breaking them down, a process which is usually sped up in aerobic conditions where oxygen can help break down the molecules. By design, landfills are often so tightly packed that they become anaerobic environments and the process takes much longer.
Recycling straws, paper or plastic, is a challenge as many of our current waste management systems do not have the facilities to do. Many recycling plants are unable to recycle items as small as a plastic straw. Many also do not accept paper products that are food-contaminated, and since paper straws usually absorb some of the liquid that they are submerged in, they may not be recycled.
Why are we still using (paper) straws
Although they are a noble attempt to solve a part of a very complex and pressing issue, paper straws are a subpar solution to a problem that does not need to exist. The introduction of paper straws has been framed as a weapon in the fight against plastic straws, however many people seem to have forgotten that straws are not our enemy — or at least not the main one. Replacing plastic straws with a paper straw that does not work as well is not solving the issue at hand, and creates more waste than not using a straw at all.
For many, a straw is not a necessity and a large majority of people who use straws would probably quickly adapt if straws suddenly vanished. Many restaurants and cafes are encouraging customers to go without a straw and some places like Starbucks offer lids that are strawless and recyclable. However, introducing the lid becomes futile if behaviour does not change and people continue to use a straw — as illustrated in the picture to the left.
Having said that, a complete straw ban is not mindful of the fact that there are people who do actually need to use a straw. Plastic straws have a robustness that makes them reliable for hot and cold drinks, which non-plastic straws often cannot provide. They are very useful tools those who need assistance such as children, the elderly, as well as disabled people and people with impairments which make it difficult to drink without a straw. Providing access to both plastic and paper straws to those who need them is good customer service and should become standard in the hospitality industry.
Putting in place ‘straw bans’ and replacing plastic with non-recyclable paper is putting a band-aid on an ocean-sized problem. Straws do not make up a majority of our oceans’ pollution and if we are serious about making a change, there are plenty of other items, industries and processes which should also be targeted. Paper straws cannot become a moral license to ignore that the way we currently live our lives, run our businesses and manufacture things are continuously and significantly hurting the planet.
Can we stop using paper straws now and actually find inclusive solutions to our environmental problems?