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Because You Asked

What’s So Bad About Plastic Straws?

By Recyclebank |

Americans use 500 million straws per day — and consequently, they’re one of the top five most common forms of trash picked up from 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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  • Linda W. 3 months ago
    might be a dumb question, but how do they go from being in my cup to being put in a waste basket to being in the water? Surely people aren't so thoughtless as to just drop their waste into the ocean! How does it happen?
  • Christine G. 3 months ago
    The only solution is to not use them. As for paper straws, NPR’s All Things Considered did a piece on straws. As it turns out there is a US manufacturer of high quality paper straws that are a great match for a plastic straw but due to the rather sudden increase in demand, they’re having a hard time keeping up with production. Apparently they are a little more expensive than plastic, but not by a cent or two more if I remember corrrectly. There are a lot of cheap paper straws made in China and elsewhere that don’t hold up well.
    If you happen to be interested in that latest craze of mixing paints in a cup and placing a canvas on top of the cup then turning the whole thing over to make a cell painting of various colors, used plastic straws can come in handy for dispersing the paint over the entire canvas by blowing through them to move the paint around. The effect is quite interesting and a google search can show you the how to. Other than that, I can do without a straw. If I wanted one, I’d purchase the glass one. Let’s face it, any little bit we can do to help the planet is well worth it.
  • Mary S. 3 months ago
  • Patty C. 3 months ago
    If plastic straws use so much energy and resources, why are they so much cheaper than paper straws that do not work as well? Also, why not ban littering by all those people who live on the coasts? I solved the problem by not buying beverages at fast food restaurants..
  • Lisa J. 3 months ago
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