In this guide, we compare the different types of straws – plastic, paper, metal (stainless steel), glass, bamboo, & others.
We look at which ones might be best environmentally, practically, and overall.
Summary – Which Straws Are The Most Eco Friendly, & Best Overall?
We’ve already touched on the subject of whether plastic straws should be banned or not in this guide
There aren’t any major and/or comprehensive life cycle assessments that we could find on the different types of straws
However, there is individual data on plastic straws, and also life cycle assessments that have been done on plastic bags, paper and cotton bags, and metal and glass bottles, that we can extrapolate trends and data from for this guide.
There are also some smaller and independent guides that talk about the pros and cons of each types of straw that have relevant information
Surprisingly, lightweight and often disposable types of plastic (like LDPE) actually rates as the lowest eco impact material amongst many types of bags (including paper, and natural fibres like cotton that could be compared in some ways to bamboo), across several key indicators/eco measurables. Today’s straws are made mainly of Polypropylene though, and even PP is better than some other materials (like paper and some renewables like cotton) from an eco perspective
Plastic bottles also have a far lower production footprint than metal bottles (stainless steel and aluminum), because of the energy requirements to process metal ores and fabricate metal. Glass has it’s own cons as a material such as being a heavier material than plastic, and having potentially higher transport and delivery costs, as well as having fragility and breakage issues
Plastic straws themselves make up a very small % of overall plastic pollution, but plastic straws and stirrers are one of the most common items found on clean ups of beaches, land and rivers (indicating they could be one of the most littered everyday items we use)
As far as practicality and usage goes, plastic is a flexible material and is widely used as a straw. Paper can have issues with soginess from getting wet unless additives are added. Metal lacks flexibility but is durable and reusable. Glass can be an issue for very hot or very cold beverages, and can obviously be a breaking hazard. And, bamboo can have similar issues to paper. Reusable straws like glass and metal might cost more, but will be cheaper over time if used more frequently. Every straw has it’s pros and cons.
In summary – the more a straw is reused, the more the cost and environmental footprint averages out over time. Single use and disposable straws are going to contribute to waste, and potentially pollution and littering at a higher rate. The most sustainable option is to reuse and repurpose existing straws as much as possible, and buy as few new straws as possible. After that, reusable straws that are used many times or over a long period may be most sustainable amongst new straw options (compared to single use and disposable straws with higher waste rates).
Apart from the straws we use, other lifestyle options like the food we eat, the clothes and products we use, how we get around in terms of transport, and how we live at home, can have a significant impact on how sustainable our lifestyle is.
Sustainability Tips When Using Straws
Using no straw at all (where possible) is the most sustainable option
Try to reuse a straw as many times as possible before disposing of it – especially metal straws. This averages out the production and transport footprint
Try to buy or find reusable straws second hand before buying a completely newly made one
For extended use and reuse of a new straw – metal straws may be the best eco option. But, they may have to be used several hundred times to make up for the energy used in the production process. A benefit of metal is that it can be recycled over and over again, unlike plastic which loses it’s integrity/quality when recycled more than a certain amount of times
For short use new straws – plastic straws may be the best eco option (because they are cheap and have a lower production and transport footprint). But, plastic straws generally can’t be recycled as a soft plastic in many countries
Make sure metal straws and other recyclable straws go to recycling where possible, and make sure plastic straws are put in general waste bins and not littered (where they tend to end up on land, in rivers, on beaches and in the ocean)
Plastic straws are flexible/can be bent, are lightweight, and are cheap. They are also reasonable when it comes to hot and cold beverages, and don’t tend to impact the flavor of whatever the drink or beverage is.
Plastic as a material is generally cheap to make and transport, and generally isn’t as energy intensive to produce as other materials like metal, paper and some natural fibres.
Today’s straws are made mainly of Polypropylene (earth911.com), and even PP is better than some other materials from an eco perspective when we extrapolate data over from lifecycle assessments done on PP plastic bags (mst.dk).
Plastic however is made from non renewable petrochemicals.
Further issues are disposal, waste management and pollution – essentially, the end of the lifecycle with plastic.
Plastic straws generally can’t be recycled (and plastic itself has a low recycling rate), or straws will rarely be accepted with other forms of polypropylene (earth911.com), so straws have to be sent to landfill or incinerated.
Plastic also takes a long time to degrade, can leach chemicals like BPA, breaks down into microplastics, and can be ingested by wild life, or they get entangled by plastic. Read more about the potential harmful effects of plastic in this guide
Plastic straws and stirrers tend to fall amongst the top littered items in the world (probably because plastic straws are used so much, and they tend to be high waste/highly disposable and single use type items).
Some interesting data on plastic straw pollution (From Ourworldindata.org):
- It’s estimated that if all straws around the world’s coastlines were lost to the ocean, this would account for approximately 0.03 percent of ocean plastics. A global ban on their use could therefore achieve a maximum of a 0.03 percent reduction
So, we can see that addressing straw pollution in particular doesn’t have a big impact in terms of quantity of plastic waste.
Expanding on the above numbers of plastic straws, Ourworldindata.org writes:
- With effective waste management systems across the world, mismanaged plastics at risk of entering the ocean could decline by more than 80 percent. If we focus all of our energy on contributions of negligible size [like plastic straws], we risk diverting our focus away from the large-scale contributions we need
Bioplastic (& Biodegradable) Straws
Bioplastic and biodegradable straws tend to be made with renewable biomass material (like corn starches and oil) instead of fossil fuel feedstock.
Using a bioplastic straw has many of the same practical pros and cons as regular plastic.
Whether bioplastics and supposedly compostable or biodegradable straws are better than plastic from an eco friendly, or sustainability perspective, is questionable.
Biodegradable straws can be made with PLA, and PLA usually only breaks down in commercial composting facilities and conditions. Since PLA does not decompose quickly in soil or seawater, this can become a problem when littered. PLA will also not be of benefit in a landfill as it doesn’t suit these conditions (greenliving.lovetoknow.com).
These straws can also contain potentially harmful additives because of their different chemical makeup.
Some ‘eco friendly’ plastic straws still contain non degradable substances and plastic particles, so, research and choose wisely.
Paper straws are soft and tend not to impact taste/flavor of a liquid being consumed, but a major complaint is that they can get wet and soggy when exposed to fluids over a certain amount of time.
To get around this issue, manufacturers may add synthetic additives or composite materials to paper straws so they hold their shape and don’t have ‘sogginess’ issues.
In terms of the eco friendliness of paper …
Paper can come from sustainably managed forests (you have to check that this is the case for a paper product you buy – look for certification), and trees are a renewable resource.
Unbleached paper may be better than bleached (naturally dyes though may be far more eco friendly than synthetic dyes and coloring).
A problem with paper as a material though is that it generally uses a lot of water, and much more energy than plastic in the production phase. Paper, like plastic, can also only be recycled a certain amount of times before it loses it’s quality and can’t be recycled anymore.
So, paper straws may not be any more favorable than plastic in some ways (and are worse in others), but, they do tend to break down in the environment far quicker than plastic, and quicker over the long term than plastic in landfills (but not so much in the short term).
Metal Straws – Stainless Steel
Metal, specifically stainless steel straws, don’t bend like plastic straws, and they can get a chill sensation when used with ice or cold drinks.
They are reusable and washable, and much more durable than plastic, paper and bamboo.
They are also far less fragile and less of a risk to break than glass.
From a sustainability perspective, metal has to be mined, the ores processed, and there is a lot of energy that goes into making a metal product compared to plastic.
Recycling metal reduces some of this impact, and keeps metal resources in the supply chain instead of having to mine and process new resources (although with some metals like stainless steel, some virgin metal may be used in addition to recycled or reclaimed metal). Recycling metals (which have good recycled economic value) also cuts down on any pollution problems that plastic may have.
In order for stainless steel to make sense from a sustainability perspective, the straw has to be re-used many times in order to average out the production footprint.
Washing with cold water instead of hot water (like in a dishwasher) will reduce the energy footprint associated with keeping the straw clean.
Food grade stainless steel is one of the better options available (and food grade stainless steel is less prone to getting the metallic taste some people claim metal straws have).
Glass straws, like metal straws, aren’t flexible/bendable like plastic straws can be.
Glass is a heavier material than plastic, and can be costlier to transport (along with using more fuel and potentially more packing material).
Glass also doesn’t always tend to have a great recycling value due to different factors, and there can be complications in recycling glass in general, so glass recycling rates can be lower in some countries than metal.
Borosilicate glass straws are usually the best option, as they are generally less prone to breaking, and seem to be better insulated against hot and cold beverages (greenliving.lovetoknow.com).
Again, bamboo straws are not bendable like a plastic straw is.
But, bamboo is a renewable and natural material (unlike plastic), and bamboo straws are generally reusable, and can be composted (as long as they are labelled as such) at the end of their life cycle. So, they are more sustainable than plastic straws in these ways.
A bamboo straw generally doesn’t last as long or isn’t as durable as a top quality non corrosive stainless steel or glass straw might be.
One of the good things about bamboo is that it is generally more eco friendly than cotton as a natural fibre because it uses far less water, less fertilizer, and no pesticides.
Silicone straws tend to be light and durable.
However, … silicone is still a type of [plastic] synthetic polymer because hydrocarbons from fossil fuels are used in its manufacture. There is limited research on its health effects, and silicone can leach chemicals when heated. Silicone can contain varying additives and there is no regulation of what can be called silicone [in some countries]. It also has an end of life issue because it is not able to be recycled through [most recycling systems] (biome.com.au)
So, silicone doesn’t really solve many of the problems you may want to solve by avoiding plastic straws.
High quality food grade silicone is perhaps the best option for silicone straws.
6. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]