woman with glass of ice water holding straw

Plastic Straws

Week 6

Last January, my husband and I went to The Bahamas to complete our Scuba Certifications. One night, when we were out to eat, I requested a straw to stir my Piña Colada. The waiter informed me that as of a few days prior, plastic straws had been banned from the country. I had never thought of plastic straws as any sort of threat to the environment, but upon hearing that an entire country had banned them, I realized I needed to educate myself.

A brief history

The basic idea of the straw has been around for centuries. 5,000 years ago, Ancient Sumerians used long metal drinking tubes to sip their beer. Back then, the material of your beer jar and straw were a sign of your status. A high-ranking preistess would have used the most precious metal. Imagine what they would think of our little plastic garbage tubes!

Fast forward to 1888, when a man named Marvin Stone first patented the design for a paper drinking straw. Within a couple of years, they were being mass produced. By the 1930s, new technology made it possible for straws to bend, thus making them an appealing solution for hospital patients who needed to have a drink while laying down.

Then, in the 1960s, plastic straws were introduced as a cheaper and more durable replacement for paper straws. Throw in the massive influx of the fast food industry and we've got ourselves a really sucky situation. Pun intended.

The benefits of straws

Before we go any further, I want to point out that straws are a necessary tool for some, including people with certain disabilities. Most plastic straw bans in the US keep this in mind and have applied more of a "by request only" approach.

The problem with single-use plastic straws

It turns out that plastic straws are one of the top 5 sources of aquatic trash. In 2019, Ocean Conservancy reported collecting 942,992 plastic straws and stirrers in their global clean up effort. According to some studies, 500 million straws are used every day in the US alone. Having trouble picturing that? 500 million straws could fill over 127 school buses each day, or more than 46,400 school buses every year.

While all plastics are harmful for the environment, straws are a special kind of menace because of their size. They are too small to be accepted by most recycling programs and just the right size to be mistaken as food by marine life. If you need a little extra push to do away with plastic straws, check out this viral video of a biologist removing a plastic straw out of a sea turtle's nose.

In addition to their mass quantity and harmful size, plastic straws take 200-500 years to break down, which is especially appalling when you consider that they have an average life span of about 30 minutes.

What should I use instead?

While some us may feel like we can get along fine without any straws, others might prefer to have one on hand. If that's the case, there are a lot of reusable options on the market these days. This week, I'll show you five different kinds to decide which is best.

Are compostable straws okay?

There are lot of disposable products out there that claim to be compostable, but if you look a little closer, you'll notice wording along the lines of "Compostable in industrial facilities." This means they won't break down in your backyard compost or, for that matter, in a landfill. These products should be avoided unless you have access to a commercial composting facility.

How can I raise awareness about plastic straws?

  • The first and easiest way is to refuse them. The next time you order a drink, ask them to hold the straw.
  • Talk about it. Most people have no idea that plastic straws are problematic, which is why it's helpful to simply have a conversation about it.
  • Write a letter requesting that restaurants provide straws only if requested. This ensures that anyone that needs a straw still has access to one.

Are any companies already addressing the straw problem?

Yes! Big companies like Starbucks, American Airlines, and Disney are looking to change the way they distribute straws. Check out this article from Money.com for a complete list of "All the Major Companies That Are Banning Plastic Straws".

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