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Because You Asked

Because You Asked: What’s So Bad About Plastic Straws?

By Recyclebank |
Americans use 500 million straws per day — and sadly, they’re the fifth most common form of trash picked up off coastlines.

Dear Recyclebank: I've been hearing about movements to ban drinking straws. Why are they so bad (aside from not being recyclable)? Do they fly away from landfills? Should I stop using them altogether? –Bonnie E.

Dear Bonnie:
If you are one of the few people who have not seen last year’s viral video of a sea turtle with a straw up its nostril, consider yourself lucky. Despite being extremely difficult to watch, the eight-minute video has over 9 million views on YouTube. The video has reinforced the anti-straw movement, which aims not only to reduce consumer use of disposable plastic straws, but also to ban them from our shelves. Even prior to the video’s release, municipalities such as Miami Beach, FL, banned plastic straws because of their negative impacts. So what are the nitty-gritty impacts driving these bans?

Drinking straws have been used for seven thousand years, but the history of the modern drinking straw began in the 1880s when Marvin Stone glued strips of paper together and drank through the contraption instead of sipping through a stalk of rye grass, as had been common. Paper straws were popular through the 1960s until plastic straws replaced them — and thus began the American fixation with plastic straws. In the present day, plastic straws make up 99% of the global drinking straw market, with paper, glass, and metal straws making up the other 1%.

As you mentioned, plastic straws are not recyclable. Plastic straws are made from polypropylene, which is a byproduct of petroleum, a fossil fuel that requires an incredible amount of energy and natural resources to extract and refine. Polypropylene is identifiable by the resin identification code 5 and is commonly recyclable, just often not in drinking straw format. Size is the biggest barrier to straw recycling. As plastic travels down conveyor belts while being sorted, small items like bottle caps and straws fall through the cracks and end up being sent to the landfill. As of right now there aren’t many (if any) special straw-recycling facilities either, which means when you use a straw, you know that plastic will sit in a landfill for years to come.

Straws, as with many small plastics, pose a threat to wildlife as well (as shown in the sea turtle video). According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, plastic straws are one of the top five most common items found on our shores during International Coastal Cleanups. The next time you’re at the beach, keep an eye out for plastic straws (you’ll probably find more than one). In the United States alone, approximately 500 million plastic straws are used and discarded each day — enough straws to circumnavigate the planet two and a half times.

So should you ditch straws altogether? If that is an option for you, then absolutely. When you eat out at restaurants, ask your server to hold the straw. If you still need straws, there are so many amazing alternatives to the plastic straw. These paper straws come in a number of fun patterns, are made in the USA, and are FDA approved, while these steel straws can be purchased on Etsy. Check out The Last Plastic Straw’s lengthy list of alternatives to find the replacement that’s right for you.

SOURCES: bon appétit, The Last Plastic Straw, NOAA, Worldwatch Institute

Can you commit to using fewer plastic straws? Tell us how you’ll do it in the comments section below!
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  • Ginny P. 1 month ago
    I read in another place on this site that straws WERE recyclable & I even commented that I never knew they were. i was referring to plastic straws NOT paper & the site did not differentiate & said they WERE. You need to make this more clear. I'm sure I'm not the only one that ASSumed that meant both kinds.
  • Alicia W. 1 month ago
    Now if only restaurants asked whether you want a straw or not because I don't like using them.
  • Patrick and Marie F. 2 months ago
    won't use them
  • Rene L. 2 months ago
    no need to use them
  • E W H. 3 months ago
    I had no idea that plastic straw's cause so many problems, I made a special funnel tube to recycle our plastic straw's but will stop this practice and use an alternative. Thank you for the heads up.
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