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, they are not easily or always recycled. Knowing how to dispose of plastic straws properly can help to mitigate their environmental impact.
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.
Polypropylene is a by product of petroleum like most other plastics. Their manufacture therefore also draws on our natural resources.
Typically no one re-uses uses plastic straws and they are not dishwasher safe which doesn’t help. Alternative eco-friendly reusable straws made of metal or glass can go into 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.
Do check with your local council or recycling scheme as to what types of plastic they accept. The labelling can be all a bit complicated and is an issue in itself. There are many different types and varying policies in regard to the collection and recycling of plastics. A little local knowledge will help you to make the right decisions about how to recycle plastic straws in your local area.
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. As a result, they then still end up in a landfill, or worse, our seas.
This problem perpetuates because polypropylene is very cheap to manufacture. There is also 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.
If your local recycling scheme does accept type 5 plastics a really simple trick is to 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.
Of course, a lot of plastic straws are 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, takeaways by definition are often eaten in our cars, by beaches, parks and so on. When disposing of plastic straws in a public space or bin they will almost certainly make their way into landfill. Once in landfill 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 the bags that your burgers came in. Of course, if you can recycle them locally even better take them home and place them in your recycling.
Straws really are only a small 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 right, 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 amount of chains and restaurants that are banning plastic straws. You can support their efforts by choosing those providers that are making this small yet important 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 make the shift to alternatives can help to encourage wider change.
Rather than throwing your plastic straws aways you can also use them for a range of home decorations or turn them into eco-bricks.
Or you can pick up a set of glass or metal straws on amazon and can carry them wherever you might go:
|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|