Should we ban plastic straws altogether?
In this guide, we look at the potential data and considerations behind that question.
Summary – Should We Ban Plastic Straws?
When it comes to the decision on whether to ban plastic straws or not, we might like to keep the following in mind the following potential priorities on straw use:
1. Reduce the use of, or eliminate the use of all straws in the first place where possible – this reduces or eliminates the footprint associated with plastic straw production, plastic straw waste, and plastic straw litter and pollution
2. Whether using plastic straw alternatives like paper straws, and metal or stainless steel straws is better can be questionable. The case study on different types of carrier bags compared to plastic bags showed us that according to different environmental indicators, alternate materials can be worse than plastic when it comes to production and disposal. If you do use reusable straws, re-use them as many times as possible before disposing of them, and don’t use or buy as many new straws i.e. lower the total number of straws you use to as few as possible
3. Whether bioplastics and supposedly compostable or biodegradable straws are better than plastic is also questionable – these straws can contain potentially harmful additives because of their different chemical makeup, and may only compost or biodegrade under certain conditions which aren’t available in industrial landfills (therefore making them just as bad as regular plastic straws). Some ‘eco friendly’ plastic straws still contain non degradable substances and plastic particles, so, research and choose wisely
Further to these points …
- Some reports outline how plastic straws make up such a small % of overall plastic waste. Rather than focussing on reducing plastic straws, if we want to be more effective with reducing ocean plastic pollution, we might look at investing in upgrading waste management systems and facilities so they are more effective at managing and containing plastic waste (and not letting them leak plastic waste into the environment)
- Additionally, some regions and countries in the world have a much bigger contribution to mismanaged plastic waste and ocean plastic pollution than others. We may focus on these regions and countries as a priority first
- You have to consider the economic, human health, wildlife and practical impact of using plastic straws vs other types of straws. Some people only consider the environmental impact. Even when measuring environmental impact, there are many potential indicators you can measure this by … for example, impact on global warming (global warming potential) is only one, and there’s many ways to measure the impact of plastic pollution on land and in the ocean
- Plastic straws and stirrers are among some of the most commonly picked up items on land and on beaches during clean ups, so it makes sense that reducing their numbers through lower usage rates will also reduce litter pollution problems
- There are other lifestyle choices which have the potential to have a far bigger impact on the social and environmental footprint we leave other than the type of straw we choose to use. What we eat, what we wear, what and how we drive or get around, and the house we live in (how big our houses are and how well insulated they are) are all examples of some of the most significant lifestyle choices we might make
- Overall, banning plastic straws outright is not clear cut if we are considering replacing them with paper, and metal straws. Reducing the number of plastic straws we use in total seems like a better idea (there are after all times when people absolutely need to use straws – like for example if someone has a mouth or tooth problem that impact their eating of solid foods)
- Alternative solutions to banning plastic straws outright might include making plastic straws much more expensive, or imposing a heavier tax on them
It’s Still Beneficial To Reduce Plastic Straw Waste, But There May Be More Effective Solutions To Address Plastic Pollution
Some sources like OurWorldInData.org suggest we may move our focus from reducing straws to other solutions to address plastic pollution:
- … 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
- … other sources of plastic pollution — such as discards of fishing nets and lines (which contributed to more than half of plastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) receive significantly less attention. 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, we risk diverting our focus away from the large-scale contributions we need.
Mismanaged plastic includes inadequately disposed of plastic (such as plastic that escapes from landfill or open dumping sites), and littered plastic.
Littered plastic is estimated at 2% of a country’s total plastic waste generation.
But specific regions and countries we may focus on might be (read more at https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution):
- High Rates Of Inadequately Disposed Of Plastic – low to middle income countries
- Highest Share Of Ocean Plastic – mainly Asia
- Highest Share of Mismanaged Plastic Waste – lead by China
- Mismanaged Plastic By Region – East Asia & Pacific leads
- Rivers Responsible For Input Of Plastic To The Oceans – China, Yangzte River, Asia
Learning About Plastic Straws From Plastic Bags
As mentioned above, looking at life cycle assessments and case studies for the impact of plastic bags, can give us a good idea of whether plastic straws should be banned, and whether they might be better than their plastic straw alternatives.
Although not the same item/product, we can pick up on trends and data such as the production requirements for alternate materials, how many times alternatives might have to be re-used to have the same environmental impact, and what the best disposal option might be.
These LCAs can also teach us that impact can be measured in many ways, and many more ways than just environmental – economic (profitability, economic feasibility, jobs created, etc), social and human health, wild life and eco systems, and technological and practical.
They also teach us that other life style choices are as important or more important than the type of straw we use.
Alternatives To Plastic Straws – No Straw, Stainless Steel, Paper, Plant Based, Bio Plastics
We’ve already discussed that using no straw, buying less straws in total, and re-using a straw as many times as possible is probably good overall environmentally and for waste management.
From plastic bag case studies, we can extrapolate that paper straws and natural material straws (like bamboo – we can compare this to the cotton and organic cotton bag examples) may not be as eco friendly in production and across other indicators as many think.
Several reports indicate that bioplastics can have their own issues, such as new additives having their own health and eco concerns, as well as only degrading or breaking down under certain compost or landfill conditions. So, they might be selected with caution.
Stainless steel as a material can be far more energy intensive and expensive than plastic, and have a higher production footprint (canr.msu.edu)
Can Plastic Straws Be Recycled As A Soft Plastic?
In many cities, soft plastics like plastic straws can’t be recycled because of issues such as contaminating other plastics, and getting stuck in recycling conveyor belts and other machinery (straws especially are small and difficult to recycle).
However, there are some private services in some cities that offer soft plastic recycling, and turn it into recycled material that can be used for park benches, decking, bollards and more (ecobin.com.au).
You will have to do an internet search though for [soft plastic recycling ‘insert city name’].
Plastic Straw Pollution
- Plastic straws and stirrers are among the littered items most commonly found during clean ups on land and on beaches and coast lines
Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]