Why Plastic Straws Are Being Banned

Kaitlin Keefer, Editor

You may have noticed all the news articles about plastic straws lately. The small, seemingly harmless utensil that goes generally unnoticed in your everyday life has made it onto 2018’s most-wanted list.

If it’s surprising to hear that plastic straws are receiving backlash, it may be even more surprising to hear that, according to a 2017 study from researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a whopping 91 percent of the plastic we use is not recycled and instead ends up in landfills or the ocean.

Because of statistics like that, some municipalities and corporations are starting to make efforts to fight pollution. As part of that, they are proposing to ban or cut back on plastic straws.

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As of July 1, Seattle is the first U.S. city to ban the use of plastic straws for vendors in the city, as well as plastic stir sticks and utensils. (Straws made of compostable paper or plastic are still allowed.) The New York City Council also recently introduced legislation to ban plastic straws by 2020. And most recently, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed a proposal to outlaw plastic straws and stirrers in the city.

Among corporations jumping on board, Starbucks is one of the first globally recognized brands to announce it will be moving away from plastic straws. In addition to switching to compostable straws, it will be releasing a new strawless drink lid design on its regular cold-drink cups.

McDonald’s in the UK has already begun the process of removing plastic straws from its stores and set a goal to have 100 percent of its food and beverage packaging materials be from renewable or recycled sources by 2025.

These big cities and large corporations taking action helps to bring attention to the issue and start a conversation about how harmful plastic straws, and plastic as a whole, are to the environment.

Moving away from plastic straws is undoubtedly good for the environment, but it may present some challenges for business owners. Learn why straws are being banned, what their environmental impact is, and what your options are when it comes to finding the right alternative for your business.

Why straws?

Based on the amount of media attention plastic straws are getting, it may be surprising to hear they are not the leading type of plastic waste. That record goes to food wrappers and containers, which account for about 31 percent of all plastic pollution. They are followed by plastic bottle and container caps at 15.5 percent, plastic bags at 11.2 percent, and then finally plastic straws and stirrers at 8.1 percent.

The main reason cited for eliminating plastic straws is their negative impact on our oceans and marine wildlife. Plastic in the ocean is a huge problem — look no further than trash island, or the viral video of a turtle suffering as a result of ocean pollution, to understand that. But of all the plastic that ends up in the ocean, straws make up only four percent of that waste.

So why are straws a big target? The problem is their size. They are small and inconspicuous. So much so that people often forget they are plastic and do not recycle them.

Straws that do get recycled often don’t make it through the mechanical recycling sorter because they are so small and lightweight. So they contaminate recycling loads or get disposed of as garbage.

It is estimated that the average person uses 1.6 straws per day. That means that if 25,000 people stop using straws, we would eliminate 5,000,000 straws and prevent them from entering oceans and harming wildlife.

So, knowing that most straws, recycled or not, are likely to end up in our oceans, and knowing the amount of straws being used every day, individuals cutting back on use can make a difference.

How did we get here?

How did one small part of a very large problem kick off a movement that has inspired cities to ban plastic straw use altogether?

Let’s start at the beginning.

Plastic straws are not the first iteration of straws. It started with cardboard straws, but once plastic production in America increased, people realized it was quicker and cheaper to produce plastic straws. Starting in the 1960s, plastic straw manufacturing took off.

From there, a number of large manufacturers started to produce plastic straws and other on-the-go convenient plastic items that were increasingly in demand. Quickly, the industry as a whole started producing more plastic, and by 2015 the world was producing 322 million tons of plastic.

Now, we are faced with having to backtrack and try to reduce the damage that years of plastic overproduction have done.

The main problem is that, while convenient, plastic is not biodegradable — it does not break down into compounds (like carbon dioxide or water) that can be easily reused. Therefore, it takes years to break down plastic particles. Because of this, when plastic is not recycled and ends up in the ocean, it stays there, forever.

Based on an analysis of trash collected on U.S. coastlines during cleanups over five years, it was found that there are nearly 7.5 million plastic straws on America’s shorelines. There are figured to be about 437 million to 8.3 billion plastic straws on the entire world’s coastlines. And since they are not biodegradable, they are not going anywhere.

We know that plastic straws are only four percent of all pollution on the planet, which puts into perspective just how much plastic is laying around.

So, while straws are a small place to start, movements like plastic straw bans bring attention to conversations about waste management and pollution. This movement can help people become more aware of the impact that everyday plastic products have on the sustainability of the planet. That can, in turn, hopefully help us make progress in reducing the amount of plastic waste in the world.

That isn’t to say it will be an easy process. While the recent bans have been met with a lot of enthusiasm, communities that rely on plastic straws and use them on a regular basis are worried about what these changes mean for them.

What’s the impact on communities and businesses?

While this move is undoubtedly good for the environment, the earth isn’t the only thing that will be affected.

As plastic straws have started slowly disappearing from everyday life, disability advocates have started speaking out. Those with certain disabilities often rely on straws to consume food and beverages, and broad bans don’t seem to take disabled members of their communities into consideration.

Some states, like California, that have recently introduced straw provisions have thought about these situations and instead of an all-out ban, they are proposing only having them available on request.

And business owners who live in places with bans will also need to adapt to providing more sustainable options for their customers (while making sure that there are options for all their customers).

The original draw of plastic was how cheap it is to produce products on a mass scale. With the new bans, businesses that once used cheap plastic straws are now having to adjust financially to the pressure from their customers and the world to provide alternatives.

What are the alternatives?

Luckily, plenty of sustainable brands are ahead of the trend and producing plastic alternatives.

Square seller Klean Kanteen — whose mission is to make the highest-quality reusable products on the planet to keep single-use waste from trashing the world — is excited that more businesses and consumers are moving away from plastic straws.

“It’s incredible to see this movement grow and reach the masses in the way that is has. The conversation and awareness has snowballed and we love it because the straws are introducing us to an entirely new audience,” said Brendan Fay, Klean Kanteen’s social media manager.

There are a handful of alternatives available today. The most popular include:

Compostable straws

The straw option you’ll likely start seeing the most in restaurants and from major food corporations is compostable straws that look and feel similar to the plastic straws you’re used to.

It is important to note that emerging research suggests that compostable plastic straw alternatives are not as ecofriendly as we thought. This is mainly chalked up to the fact that compostable straws do not biodegrade any quicker than traditional plastic straws, unless they are disposed of in a commercial composter.

Cardboard and paper straws

Before there were plastic straws, there were paper straws. In fact, Marvin Stone created the very first straw by wrapping pieces of paper around a tube and gluing the pieces together. Paper straws, such as Aardvark straws, decompose in 45–90 days and provide an ecofriendly alternative to plastic straws.

Another draw of paper straws is that companies have started printing different designs on the straws to create more variety and themes for consumers.

Glass straws

While not the best for traveling, glass straws have also become a popular substitute for plastic straws. Companies like Simply Straws have created both straight and bent glass straws in a variety of widths to provide options for people looking for alternatives.

Silicone straws

BPA-free silicone straws, made from food-grade silicone, are another straw alternative gaining popularity. Silicone straws, like the kind Softy Straws produces, are also a good option for kids who like to chew on their straws.

Metal straws

Due to how long they can last, metal straws are considered one of the most eco-friendly options for straw alternatives. Klean Kanteen sells reusable steel straws among other reusable products like stainless steel hot cups and water bottles.

If steel straws sound like the way to go for you, use the code SQUARE for 25% off one order from Klean Kanteen.

Kaitlin is an editor at Square where she covers everything from how small businesses can start, run, and grow, to how enterprise companies can use tools and data to become industry leaders.