By asking for non-plastic straws when eating out you can make a small but high impact difference to the amount of plastic waste we create. A proportion of the single-use plastics we consume make their way into our landfills and seas and the environmental impact of plastic straws is a well documented significant problem.
Most of us love a plastic straw, ever-present accompaniment to our glass of coke, orange juice, cocktails or other cold drink. Throughout our long history with plastic straws we’ve been giving our drinks a stir and playing with the ice. And more importantly, consuming our favourite beverages without having to bring the actual glass to our lips! Brilliant. You can even blow bubbles. The good news is that by switching to non-plastic straws we can all make a small difference to the amount of plastic waste we consume.
How many plastic straws do we use a day?
We go through a staggering 25.3 billion plastic straws in Europe every year . In the US it is said that we use 500 million straws a day, a statistic that became viral after its release back in 2011. This number has played a leading role in exposing quite how wasteful we are with plastic straws.
It turns out that this number was originated by a 9-year-old from Vermont, Milo Cress. Milo undertook the research as part of his own personal campaign to reduce plastic drinking straw usage. He called a bunch of manufacturers and averaged out the responses he received to indicate the volume of straws Americans use every single day.
It’s an important number that has been recognised as igniting the plastic straw ban movement and has been covered across America by a range of high profile publications including the New York Times, National Park Service and USA Today. Check a 10-year-old Milo talking about his work below on CNN (go, Milo!):
Estimates of the number of straws used in a county as big as America vary considerably. Just imagine all those burger joints, eateries, cafes and restaurants across the land (and the globe) serving drink after drink with plastic straws. They all, of course, get disposed of after a single use rather than being reused.
42 billion straws are used each year in the UK, or 115 million a day. This is by far and away the highest usage in Europe.
Whatever the actual numbers there’s no doubt at all that we get through a lot of straws. This all adds up to plastic straws being a big environmental problem.
People taking notice of plastic straws
A few years after Milo created the 500 million statistic that started people taking notice Christine Figgener (marine biologist) filmed a now-famous video that video that caught the public attention. You can watch her removing a plastic straw from a poor unfortunate sea turtles nose. Be warned its an unpleasant watch.
Pretty harrowing stuff. Terrible for the turtle and all those affected since. On a more positive note however her video helped really propel the plastic straw issue into the public psyche. The video has received over 34 million views worldwide and been featured on media outlets including Lad bible and the Telegraph providing even more coverage.
That turtle basically became the poster turtle of the movement to encourage more and more people to use non-plastic straws.
In late 2017 the BBC first aired “Blue Planet II” featuring Sir David Attenborough, the follow up to 2001’s award-winning show. The Blue Planet has helped raise public awareness of the plastic issue. David Attenborough tells the story better himself in the video below than we ever could, do watch:
So what is the problem with plastic straws?
Plastic straws are small, hollow and light and don’t seem to take up all that much room. You might think, other than the sheer volume, that we have bigger things to worry about. To an extent, you’d be right.
Relatively straws are still a small bit of the picture. At around 7 per cent of all the plastic waste, we humans produce (land and sea) and considerably less by weight.
Part of the issue is that as plastic straws often accompany a takeaway meal. People are found using them in their cars and by the sea making it less convenient to dispose of them into recycling bins at home or in restaurants. They are often thrown away, take away paper cup attached. As a result, they are easily blown into our waterways, which disproportionately causes more harm to the environment and marine life in it.
At TRVST we believe that every straw in landfills or the seas is one too many. Asking, using and buying non-plastic straws helps prevent straws adding to the mountain of rubbish we’ve created. Or perhaps even better ask yourself if you even need a straw at all?
What type of plastic are straws made from?
Today the vast majority of the standard fast food plastic straws in restaurants around the world are typically made from Polypropylene or Polyethylene. Polypropylene is a resin that results from the stringing together of the molecules of propylene gas. Durable and safe for contact with food and drink it’s relatively cheap to produce. Polypropylene is also commonly used for margarine containers and various bottle caps and lids.
Can you recycle plastic straws?
Typically no one re-uses uses plastic straws and they are not dishwasher safe which doesn’t help. Alternative eco-friendly straws made of metal or glass can go in the dishwasher no problem and be reused.
Polypropylene is something called type 5 plastic, Most domestic recycling schemes, where they pick up your recycling from your home, don’t accept type 5 plastic. As a result, straws end up in a landfill.
Even if they are able to recycled in your local area, there’s another problem. They are often too light to be recycled. Because of their weight and size plastic straws tend to drop through the screens that sift out the heavier items in mechanised recycling plants. They then still end up in a landfill, or worse, our seas.
This problem perpetuates because polypropylene is very cheap to manufacture and there is little demand for the resulting output from the recycling process. It’s cheaper for manufacturers to start with new materials rather than to use the outputs of the recycling process.
How to dispose of plastic straws?
If your local recycling scheme does accept type 5 plastics a really simple trick is to actually place them into a larger type 5 plastic container. It’s likely the whole container will get recycled therefore including the straws in it. It’s the small things sometimes.
What can we change?
At TRVST we recognise that plastic straws are merely the tip of the plastic trash iceberg. Despite significant progress at a governmental level, which is important, we can and should act now to reduce our own individual use of plastic straws.
Asking for non-plastic straws is a step we can all take individually. If everyone did so we stand to make a dent in the crazy volume we use every year. We can also play a role in helping to eradicate the environmental harm each straw has the potential to create.
A simple change of behaviour that sparks a conversation around non-plastic straw alternative and involves all ages and is something that we individually can action is progress. Helping support change like this is why TRVST exists.
- Remember to always ask for non-plastic straws
- Use eco-friendly alternatives to plastic straws where you can that are biodegradable or reusable
- Ask your local restaurant, bar or pub to stop using single-serve plastic straws and replace them with non-plastic straws or paper straws
What are non-plastic straw alternatives?
Many alternatives to plastic straws now exist, we encourage you to shop around and have a look at the following alternatives (links go to amazon.com)
- Paper Straws
- Reusable bamboo straws
- Natural bamboo straws
- Stainless steel straws
- Glass straws
- Metal straws
- Biodegradable plastic straws
- Silicone Straws
- BPA free straws
Should we ban plastic straws?
Plastic straws are becoming a no go area for diners across the world. This is good news.
There have been various steps across the world to ban plastic straws. Several US cities, most notably Seattle and Miami Beach have banned plastic straws. The biggest move so far has been the European Parliament voting for a complete ban of single-use plastics across members of the EU by 2025. The vote was passed 571 in favour to 53 against.
“A victory for our oceans, for the environment and for future generations.”
Frédérique Ries, the MEP responsible for the bill and Belgian Politician.
The ban will encourage businesses including those both producing and buying plastic packaging to consider alternatives. Although the full force of any ban coming into play takes time these moves count significantly towards eliminating the wastefulness of single-use plastics and their harm.
What’s happening now?
There’s a move by companies and organisations to reduce the use of environmentally harmful plastic straws. Further, we can all play a role in encouraging restaurants, businesses and those that continue to use plastic straws to make a change.
Mounting awareness, pressure and consumer advocacy to reduce our plastic waste are motivating companies to act. Here’s a selection of those companies that have either already phased out plastic straws or committed to doing so:
If there are others that should be included in this list please do let us know. We’ve got plans to create a fuller list of companies making these commitments and either moving to or using non-plastic straws, Sign up to our newsletter to find out more as it happens.
The last word (non-plastic straws!)
At TRVST we’re on a mission to empower people to act for change. We work across a range of areas where we have recognised that ordinary people coming together to act can make a real impact on the world we live in. We really hope you’ve found this an interesting read, we certainly enjoyed bringing it to you. If you did please do further support our work by following us on social media, signing up for our newsletter, commenting below or donating.
Sources and references:
(not linked above)
 Leverage Points for Reducing Single-use Plastics, Eunomia, Chris Sherrington Chiarina Darrah Steven Watson Joss Winter, 30th March 2017
 A Plastic Future – Plastics Consumption and Waste Management in the UK, Eunomia working with the WWF
 Ban List, Better Alternatives Now. B.A.N List 2.0. An analysis and call-to-action to phase out the most polluting plastic products used in the United States