The problem with plastic straws.
Of all the plastic items that we use once and discard, straws have become something of a poster boy for plastic pollution. They’re astonishingly wasteful - used merely for a few minutes, and then thrown away (with a fresh one popped into the next drink). Billions and billions are used each year, despite the fact that most people could simply sip without them.
Thankfully, for those here in the UK, it might have been a while since you’ve seen a plastic straw. Wondering what happened to them? We’re going to outline why plastic straws are so harmful, how and why they were banned and what our favourite alternatives are.
Why are plastic straws bad?
Even within the context of other single-use items, straws are particularly harmful for a few reasons. Firstly, straws are very small, thin and light. This means that they’re extra prone to being littered into the environment. Their small size (and bright colours) also mean they’re more likely to be ingested by animals who mistake them for food - particularly in the sea - and this is often deadly.
Because straws are thin, they also start to break down relatively quickly. But they’re not biodegradable, and instead break down into microplastics. These tiny plastic particles are spreading everywhere - from the water we drink to the fish we eat. They’ve been shown to have wide-ranging effects on ecosystems down to a cellular level, and we still don’t fully understand their impact.
Plastic straws aren’t recyclable, so if they don’t end up in the environment, the best we can hope for is that they meet their end in a landfill or incinerator. For a product that’s so unnecessary, that’s an incredibly short and wasteful life cycle.
Are plastic straws banned?
If you’ve noticed the proliferation of eco-friendly paper straws (or if you still have a few plastic ones lurking in a drawer), you may have wondered: are plastic straws illegal now? Since 2021, businesses in England have been banned from providing or selling single-use plastic straws, drinks stirrers and plastic cotton buds to customers.
If businesses are found to breach this ban, they could be fined. But having old plastic straws is not illegal, and some exemptions to the ban are in place to protect those with conditions who require them. Before the ban came into effect, it was estimated that 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316 million plastic stirrers and 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds were used in England every year. That’s a lot of plastic saved.
What plastic are straws made of?
Typically, plastic straws are made of polypropylene. This is the same type of plastic that disposable water bottles are made of. However, due to their size, plastic drinking straws can’t be recycled in the same way that plastic bottles can.
Are plastic straws recyclable?
Although straws could in theory be recycled, they can’t be picked up by traditional sorting machines due to their small size and weight. In fact, they may fall through sorting screens and contaminate recycling loads by mixing with other materials - so you should actively keep them out of your recycling.
Can plastic straws be reused?
Although they’re not durable enough to last long, you can extend the useful life of a disposable plastic straw by washing it and reusing it a couple of times. Giving a straw a gentle wash with warm soapy water, and then rinsing it inside and out should be enough to clean it. However, it’s not advised that you put them in the dishwasher.
What alternatives are there to plastic straws?
With plastic straws now banned in the UK, you may have noticed disposable paper straws are the replacement now favoured by the hospitality business. They’re cheap and biodegradable - the perfect disposable stand-in. But if you’d prefer to buy something that actually lasts (and don’t love the feeling of soggy paper), what are your options?
We’ve seen glass, silicone and bamboo straws on the market - but the strongest and most effective ones we’ve found are made of stainless steel. They’re hygienic and smooth, and best of all, they’ll absolutely last forever.
Kids especially will love these iridescent rainbow straws, which are perfect for instilling good habits at an early age. They’re long (so they won’t vanish into a bottle), wide (for shakes and smoothies) and bent (for ease of use). Plus, they come with a cotton bag and cleaning brush so you can keep them fresh on the go.
Interested in transitioning to metal straws? Read all about them in our article here.