Colourful, decorative and functional – what’s not to like about plastic straws? For so long, we have just got used to receiving one whether relaxing in a cocktail bar or rushing in and out of a fast food restaurant. Kids drain their milkshakes through them, juice cartons have them grafted on with their individual sleeves “protected” by yet more plastic and it’s often easy simply to help ourselves to one whenever we want. However, there is now a developing realisation that colourful plastic has real consequences. Yes, it can be convenient to slurp at your drink without spillage but we should all take a moment to think where those used straws actually end up. The unfortunate truth is that they usually finish their journey in landfill or get discarded outside only to find their way into water courses and ultimately the oceans.
It’s generally ineffective to attempt to recycle plastic straws as their size and shape are incompatible with today’s recycling machinery. They tend to get grouped with other smaller items such as plastic utensils and then fall through the equipment that sorts our recycling.
Plastic straws are one of the top 10 items found in beach clean-ups. Plastic is not biodegradable — instead, the material eventually breaks down into tiny particles known as microplastics that are five millimetres or smaller in length. These are difficult to clean or filter from the ocean and quickly find their way into the world’s complex ecosystems.
Plastic is a major pollutant of oceans all over the planet, interfering with the underwater world, killing sea animals and generating long-term effects which we may not understand now.
One of the easiest ways is to spread the word. Those who care have the ability to influence through their grip of social media and can leverage their skill in communicating quickly and at a considerable scale.
What possible solutions are there?
Many restaurants and food outlets have already taken steps to replace their plastic straws with paper ones. This is a welcome development with McDonalds making the move to paper straws only last year. Companies making these greener products are having to deal with increasing demand. But consumers have a role to play too – they need to ask why the bar or food outlet they visit is still using plastic. It’s this sort of pressure which can help to bring about meaningful change.
There are alternatives to plastic apart from paper. Glass, metal or bamboo straws are already available and they have the key advantage of being able to be cleaned and used again and again.
Environmental campaigners have a straightforward message saying that if you don't need a straw, it's best for our world not to use one at all. Think of it as making a small change for a better world and don’t forget the three Rs: Refuse, Refuse, Refuse.