Sustainability now: The flaws of plastic straws

Thursday, 27 September 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

We all are used to them since our childhood, we see them every day when we visit a restaurant, bar or buy juice drinks at a grocery store: Plastic straws. Despite being small, they are one of the major contributors to plastic pollution on land and in the sea.

Large corporations such as Starbucks, Bacardi Rum, Marriott Hotels, Alaska Airlines, and American Airlines have promised to phase out their plastic straws, cities such as Seattle have banned all plastic utensils including straws from bars and businesses in the entire city, San Francisco followed and also banned plastic straws with beginning of July 2019. 

Where it is true that straws are only a small piece within the large pile of plastic trash we have accumulated, they are also a product which we don’t really need. Therefore, they are a good starting point to reduce plastic pollution. The Business Insider reported some weeks back that in 2015 plastic consumption worldwide totalled 300 million metric tonnes, which means that each of the 7.6 billion humans on this planet, is making 88 pounds of plastic waste per year. At the same time, the packaging industry is still growing. Also, more than 79% of all plastic waste ends up in landfills or in the environment, another 12% gets burned in incinerators and only 9% gets actually recycled (according to a 2017 report published in Science Advances). These are highly frustrating statistics. It can only mean that we should not focus on recycling only, we should start at the beginning of the consumption process and not USE certain products in the first place.

Not everyone knows that plastic is actually made out of coal, oil or natural gas, hence all synthetic plastic is made from fossil fuels. The production process includes heating and curing of these plastics which makes many of them non-recyclable. We all heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch floating between Hawaii and California, which 99.9% consists of plastic waste. 

There are more and more alternatives to plastic available on the market. There are steel straws, bamboo straws, pasta straws, paper straws. However, in many cases a straw is not even needed to consume the product, it might be just a habitual process to include it. Instead of using plastic pouches for juices and milk drinks, why not using glass bottles? They can be reused either for the same product or for a different purpose. They are also hygienic and very easy to clean. One might complain that they are heavy and can break. Well, I guess no alternative will be perfect, however they can minimise waste without losing too much of consumer convenience. End of the day, continuing our current waste behaviour will in any case lead to a decreased living standard for all of us.

In bars and restaurants, straws can be replaced with steel or bamboo straws. One might fear that consumers are not going to return the reusable straws. In that case the bar can be charging them the cost of the straw, if the drink is returned without straw. In most cases drinks are paid for at the end of the visit. If drinks are paid for immediately when ordering, the bar/ restaurant can charge consumers a small fee which is returned once the empty glass including straw are returned. Without doubt no one is going to collect a number of straws at home, after paying for one or two, consumers are going to send them back with the empty glass. This system is proven in various countries and works well for events where visitors need to pay a deposit for drinking glasses, plates or similar items. Only on return of the item they are paid back the deposit.

Banning plastic straws won’t solve our global problem of plastic waste, however it can be a start. We have already had some success in banning single use plastic bags, the straw can be the next step. And with the straw, all the other unnecessary non-reusable plastic items (single use cutlery for example). If products are consumed at a restaurant bar/store itself, reusable cutlery can be handed out. If the product is taken home, the consumer can use his own household items, there is no need to hand out small plastic spoons with each yoghurt for example. It won’t harm us or decrease our wellbeing if we use reusable straws or spoons. Rather, it will increase our wellbeing if less of all that wastage is floating around in drains, lagoons and the sea. All single use plastic is NOT necessary, we had alternatives years ago, and we can have them now as well. I dare to say, we are just used to them, we don’t need them.

Most documentaries which discuss plastic straw bans explain about how hard it was to find alternatives. This is understandable if the alternative is really needed. A widely used example is that some persons with disabilities need straws to consume their drink. Another argument is that changing from plastic straws to compostable straws increases the costs of the business. Hardly any article talks about the introduction of reusable straws. Despite the cost for buying the straws in the first place, there won’t be any cost after that. Instead, the plastic straws must be bought frequently. Another possibility would be to convince more consumers to carry a small pouch of reusable items (straw, cutlery, bag) for everyday situations and use these when eating out or shopping. For ladies this won’t cause too much hassle, as most women carry handbags. For gents I am convinced there might be a fashionable product alternative which can be developed. Years ago no one would have imagine to carry around cell phones which are larger than a cigarette pack, and still people got used to them. Similarly, with the necessary advertising and opinion lead, the reusable items pouch can be a trend which picks up and grows momentum.

There is a lot of awareness raising taking place on social media about waste and its harm for environment, animals and humans. This is crucial to highlight the issues we cause with our non-reflected behaviour. However, we also need to go a step further and start shaping the systems. Beach clean ups are great, however we need to see how we can prevent waste from the beginning. We need to convince companies to reduce their waste as much as possible, we need to assist packaging industries to improve their packaging and shift from producing single use items to reusable items. Recycling is great, however it should be the last step, not the primary focus.


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