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The Environment

Make notes on the facts and statements which seem to contradict that plastic straws are worse than paper ones.

Plastic or Paper? The Truth about Drinking Straws

The backlash against single-use plastics has seen a growing market for paper, metal, glass and plant-based straws. But is the choice between them really a simple one?

You order a smoothie to sip with your lunch, a morning iced coffee or your Friday night cocktail, and it arrives with a brightly-coloured tube of paper sticking out the top. After a few sips, however, the tube quickly flops in on itself, forcing you to take it out and leave it on the table in a wet, pulpy mess.

Paper straws have become almost ubiquitous in bars and fast-food outlets as the hospitality industry has rushed to ditch plastic in response to a consumer backlash. But while they may not linger in the environment for 300 years or so like those made of plastic, paper straws leave a lot to be desired.

A recent study has also highlighted another potential concern. Paper straws assessed by researchers at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, were found to contain more forever chemicals and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) than plastic. These long-lasting PFAS can stay in the environment for decades, can contaminate water supplies, and are associated with a range of health problems.

One not very scientific, but much repeated estimate, put the number of disposable drinking straws used every day in the US at 500 million. The validity of that statistic has been disputed, and the real figure is probably less than half that amount. Certainly, the amount being spent on disposable drinking straws has been rising year on year for the past two decades. And although the estimates for exactly how straws are used each year and how many end up in the environment are tricky to confirm, what’s clear is that plastic straws get everywhere. They are found in huge numbers in beach clean-ups, in the stomachs of penguins, and even jammed inside the nostril of an Olive Ridley sea turtle.

Milo Cress uncovered that 500 million straws a day statistic and started the Be Straw Free movement in 2011 when he was only nine. The campaign eventually inspired major companies such as Starbucks and McDonald’s to stop using plastic straws and entire states like California to ban them outright.

While that may sound like a huge boon for sustainability, as I took a closer look at the environmental impact of plastic straws, I was surprised to learn that it’s a drop in the ocean compared to other plastic pollution.

When you walk on a beach, plastic straws are one of the most common types of litter you’ll see. But they actually make up only a tiny fraction of the plastic waste that finds its way into the environment.

Of 380 million tonnes of plastic waste produced, about 43 million tonnes comes from consumer products that include single use plastics from the food and beverage industry. Roughly 14 million tonnes of this, or 3.7% of total plastic waste, is made of polypropylene, the main material used in plastic straws.

In the oceans, fishing nets, are among the most prevalent form of plastic pollution. One study published in 2018 found that 46% of the 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic estimated to be in the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch came from fishing nets.

So why did plastic straws become such an emblem of the plastic pollution problem if their impact is minimal?

‘The straw became the symbol of a choice an individual could make that also has an impact,’ says Erin Simon, vice president for plastic waste and business at the World Wildlife Fund. ‘And while we know it’s not that simple, and the problem goes far beyond the use of plastic straws, a global crisis like plastic pollution can only be solved when everyone does their bit.’

Of course, giving up plastic straws won’t solve plastic pollution, but it has thrust the problem into the public eye.

Surprisingly, despite being made of fossil fuels, one study from researchers in Thailand suggests that traditional plastic straws made from polypropylene have a smaller carbon footprint than bioplastic straws, which are supposed to be biodegradable. After assessing the greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the raw materials, manufacturing and disposal of the straws, the researchers found these straws produced more emissions due to amount of land needed to grow and harvest the natural materials used to make them. They have also recently been found to not be as biodegradable as was first believed.

The amount of greenhouse gases released during the life cycle of paper straws has been estimated to be anywhere from the same as plastic straws to a quarter of the emissions. One set of life cycle assessments performed by researchers in Brazil in 2020 found that paper straws had a higher relative environmental impact than plastic ones. Again the land use needed for the raw materials, i.e. trees, was the main reason. The study didn’t, however, account for their impact on marine life, where researchers admitted plastic straws would likely have the higher impact there since paper straws degrade quickly in water.

It’s worth noting that much like plastic straws, paper straws typically can’t be recycled as they break down too much when they hit liquid. An assessment by the UK government also concluded that paper straws emit more greenhouse gases when they rot in landfill compared with plastic.

I initially embraced the anti-plastic straw movement because it felt like a concrete action that protects marine life. While that’s true in part, according to Shelie Miller, professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan, most straws end up being incinerated or tossed in a landfill. Once in landfills, plastics degrade slowly, breaking down to become microplastics that can leach out into the wider environment or even produce potentially harmful chemical contamination. But the amount of greenhouse gases produced by plastic straws is relatively low.

‘Avoiding one car trip totalling 72km is the emissions equivalent of giving up plastic water bottles for four years,’ says Miller. ‘Most of us would be very concerned if we were throwing away three kilos of plastic every day, but burning a couple of litres of petrol is something we do without thinking about.’

If you want to keep using straws, or need to due to a disability, Nunez suggests opting for reusable, non-plastic straws. Metal and glass straws are much safer and hold up to wear and tear longer than plastic, but even these have their problems. According to one assessment, a glass straw is responsible for 44 times as many greenhouse gas emissions compared to a plastic one, while stainless steel straws emit 148 times as much. Bamboo straws are better, but still produce 27 times as much carbon dioxide than plastic. Another study in South Africa found you would need to use a glass straw 23-39 times and a stainless steel straw 37-63 times to neutralise the environmental impact they create when they’re made and sold. Fortunately, a well-made reusable straw will work perfectly well for hundreds of reuses.

Another major plus the researchers noted, however, was that reusable straws don’t often end up in the ocean.

So, it’s far from a simple choice. The scientific evidence is mixed, depending where you look for the harm on the environment. Every expert I spoke with said it’s instead better to refuse straws altogether if you are able to. Then you can sit back and enjoy your drink.