Plastic Straws: A Single Use that Lasts a Lifetime

Plastic straws in drinking cups. Photo credit: Pxhere

The U.S. consumes about 500 million plastic straws each day. I don’t find this hard to believe because yesterday morning, I walked into my favorite Starbucks before heading into work and as I stood in line and waited for my drink, I couldn’t help but notice each drink that was served before me had a plastic straw. One by one, a plastic straw was put in each drink, from iced lattes to frappuccinos, as customers grabbed them to go. It dawned on me that this practice has become automated. It felt as if there wasn’t an option to opt out of plastic straws. We don’t think about it. We simply do it.

This is not a personal attack at any plastic straw users. I, myself, am guilty of using them. As an avid coffee drinker and Starbucks consumer, I started questioning my own moral compass — can I really call myself an environmentalist and use plastic straws?

A Daily Waste

Pile of straws found with other wastes. Photo credit: Greenpeace

Plastic straws are a major pollution. According to 4Ocean, plastic straws can take up to 200 years to decompose, — way beyond our lifespans! For a one-time use, they last a very long time as most are not biodegradable. As a result, billions of plastic straws end up in landfills every day. Many of them enter the waste streams while some 8–12 million tons of straws end up in our ocean, threatening our oceans and marine life. Only a tiny portion of plastic straws gets recycled and even when they do, the byproduct of the recycling process still releases toxins into the air that we breathe while the rest enters our crops and animals, eventually penetrating our food chain.

Threat to Marine Life

When plastic straws reach the ocean, many marine animals mistaken them for food. Upon ingesting, these straws can either choke them or get stuck in their digestive tracts. I have seen images of seabirds, whales, dolphins, and seals with plastic straws in their stomach. Straws can also suffocate marine animals and cause physical injuries.

Sea turtles are one of the marine animals greatly affected by plastic straw. Photo credit: Max Pixel

One image that I could never erase in my mind was the suffering of a sea turtle struck by a plastic straw in its nasal cavity. This image is so heartbreaking yet sends a powerful message on our out-of-control consumption of plastic straws.

Human Health Hazard

Plastic straws can also create human health problems. Most plastics contain polypropylene and BPA, or commonly known as Bisphenol A, that can contaminate the liquids we drink. Obesity and cancer are few of the health hazards presumed to be caused by plastic use.

Truth of the matter is, we shouldn’t have to wait for health statistics from organizations or public health universities to determine whether plastic is bad for our health. Think about it– plastic straws from landfills enter the oceans and marine life, such as fishes and seabirds, consume them. Consequently, we eat seafood that once consumed plastic in its lifetime and we are now likely carrying the toxins of plastic waste. It’s like a tragic poetry…we get back what we threw out.

Are there Better Straws out there?

The good news is plastic straw is not the only option out there. Other alternatives are available if we strive to combat this growing plastic straw pollution. The best and obvious alternative is not to use one. Unfortunately, this option is easier said than done because reality is, not everyone could follow through. We’re so used to straw consumption that it becomes an automatic impulse to grab and place them in our drinks. So, at the least, here are some alternatives that are more biodegradable and compostable:

  1. Paper straws

These straws can be used in wide variety of ways, from iced coffees and smoothies to cocktail drinks and cake pops. Paper straws decompose in just 45–90 days, making it a more environmentally friendly alternative.

2. Glass straws

Unlike single use plastic straws, glass straws are designed as reusable. They’re durable in quality and can easily be washed for reuse.

3. Steel straws

Like glass straws, steel straws are made for reuse to help lessen our straw consumption. It’s worth noting, however, that stainless steel straws have been linked to toxic chemicals especially when they’re heated. Hence, it’s always good to take precautionary measures and do some research before using this alternative.

4. Bamboo straws

The name says it all, these straws are made of bamboo. They’re organically made from bamboo harvests. Bamboos are easy to grow and grow very fast. With careful regulation on their growing and harvesting process, they could be a great alternative.

Corporate Responsibility

Plastic straw in a coffee drink. Photo credit: Pxhere

While consumers have a big part to play in tackling plastic straw pollution, much of it rests on the actions of companies that produce them, such as Starbucks, Coffee Bean, restaurants and fast food chains. The reality is, we, as consumers cannot simply solve plastic straw pollution by reducing and eliminating our consumption. It takes strict environmental regulation on companies that produce them to create a big lasting change. Recently, Starbucks introduced its strawless-lids, which is a big step towards the right direction, proving consumer demands work.

As we do our part on reducing or stopping plastic straw use, we can pressure corporations to do the same through petitions, reaching out to our legislators, and spreading the word to others. Plastic straws last for a very long time, but we have the power to stop it.

This post was created by an amazing GREEN ZINE volunteer contributor, and opinions expressed may not represent the views of Greenpeace. If you are interested in volunteering as a GREEN ZINE contributor, visit this link.