It is said that we get through a staggering 500 million straws a day in the US. These small plastic tubes of convenience pose a disproportionate impact on the environment due to their lightweight and the sheer volume that we get through. Unfortunately, we cannot easily or always recycle most plastic straws. Knowing how to dispose of plastic straws properly can help mitigate their environmental impact.
Today the vast majority of the standard fast-food plastic straws in restaurants worldwide are typically made from Polypropylene or Polyethylene. Polypropylene is a resin that results from the stringing together of the molecules of propylene gas. It's durable and safe for contact with food and drink, and it’s relatively cheap to produce.
Polypropylene is also commonly used for margarine containers and various bottle caps and lids.
Polypropylene is a by-product of petroleum, like most other plastics. Manufacture, therefore, also draws on our natural resources.
Related: You might also like to read up on the history of plastic straws.
Typically no one re-uses plastic straws, and they are not dishwasher safe, which doesn’t help. Alternatively, eco-friendly reusable straws made of metal or glass can go into the dishwasher with no problem, and you can easily reuse them.
Are plastic straws recyclable? Polypropylene is something called type 5 plastic. Most domestic recycling facilities, where they pick up your recycling from your home, don’t accept type 5 plastic. As a result, straws end up in a landfill.
Do check with your local council or recycling scheme about what types of plastic they accept before ditching your used plastic straws in the recycling bin. The labeling can be all a bit complicated and is an issue in itself.
There are many different types and varying policies regarding the collection and recycling of plastics. A little local knowledge will help you make the right decisions by understanding if they accept plastic straws at a local recycling center and, therefore, if you can directly place plastic straws in curbside recycling.
Even if they can recycle type 5 plastic in your local area, there’s another problem. Because of their weight and size, plastic straws tend to drop through the screens that sift out heavier items in mechanized recycling machinery. They are often too light to be recycled.
As a result, they then still end up in a landfill, or worse, our seas. Here we cannot underestimate the environmental impact of plastic straws. They can be mistaken for food by marine life, don't biodegrade, and have been found washed up on beaches across the world.
This problem perpetuates because polypropylene is very cheap to manufacture. It’s cheaper for manufacturers to start with new materials rather than to use the outputs of the recycling process. There is also little demand for the resulting output from the recycling plant process.
If your local recycling scheme does accept type 5 plastics, a straightforward trick is to place them into a larger type 5 plastic container. The whole container will probably get recycled, therefore including the straws in it. It’s the small things sometimes.
Of course, we find a lot of plastic straws served with takeaway meals—fast-food chains in the US alone dish out 50 million meals a year. Try and be mindful of what happens when you dispose of the plastic straws accompanying your milkshakes and soda.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Sherry Lippiatt was quoted in wired saying:
“I think the fact that straws are small and used on-the-go lends itself to the fact that they can easily leak into the environment. Any moment when trash is being transferred from one mode to another, some fraction of it is lost.”
Most restaurants now have recycling bins and using them is a no-brainer.
However, we often eat takeaways, by definition, in our cars, at beaches, parks, and so on. When disposing of plastic straws in a public space or bin, they will almost certainly make their way into landfills. Once in landfills, plastic straws can take up to 200 years to break down and decompose3.
Because of their lightweight plastic, straws can easily blow out of bins into our parks and seas. A simple trick is to ensure they are not left loose in the bin and wrapped in your burgers' bags. Of course, if you can recycle them locally, even better, take them home and place them in your recycling.
Straws really are only a tiny part of the plastic problem. To grapple with the size of the problem elsewhere, fishing nets account for 46% of all ocean plastic2. As a result, you might think that straws are insignificant.
To an extent, you’d be correct; however, plastic straws are the 7th most collected waste item on our beaches1. Every plastic straw we save from blowing out of our trash or landfills into our Oceans is an improvement on the status quo. Arguably keeping them out of landfills in the first place is an even better solution.
Even better than trying to recycle plastic straws is carrying and using reusable straws from the get-go. Ask for non-plastic straws when you’re eating out, or even better, ask yourself if you even need one at all.
There is an increasing number of chains and restaurants banning plastic straws. You can support their efforts by choosing those providers that are making this small yet significant step in helping to reduce our single-use plastic waste. When eating at a restaurant still serving plastic straws by default, simply expressing a request they shift to alternatives like paper straws or reusable stainless steel straws can help encourage wider change.
Rather than throwing them away, you can also repurpose plastic straws for a range of home decorations or turn them into eco-bricks.
Or you can pick up a set of glass straws or metal straws on amazon and can carry them wherever you might go:
You'll find many non-plastic alternatives on the market, including biodegradable paper straws, compostable paper straws, and bamboo straws. Each has its pros and cons. Certainly, the paper ones remain single-use and, therefore, still end up discarded. Whereas you can recycle straws made from paper, they still cause unnecessary waste and waste precious resources.
No doubt, the best thing you can do is reuse straws by grabbing a set that will last. And if you do find yourself with single-use plastic straws in your soda pops, knowing how to dispose of plastic straws can make a small difference to our waste problem.
|Using expert elicitation to estimate the impacts of plastic pollution on marine wildlife, Chris Wilcox, Nicholas J.Mallos, George H.Leonard, Alba Rodriguez, Britta Denise Hardesty. Marine Policy Volume 65, March 2016, Pages 107-114. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2015.10.014|
|Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea Christian Schmidt, Tobias Krauth, and Stephan Wagner. Environmental Science & Technology 2017 51 (21), 12246-12253. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.7b02368|
|Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Plastic straws can take 200 years to break down|