After decades of being slipped into to-go cups without a second thought, the tides have turned on single-use plastic straws. Increasing awareness about plastic pollution has made them a target to be eliminated, and for good reason.

This article has been updated.

In America alone, 500 million straws—enough to fill 127 school buses—are used each day. They’re one of the 10 most commonly found items in beach cleanups, plus they litter the environment and clog up landfills.

Even though plastic straws are FDA approved, they may still contain BPA and other harmful chemicals, which leach into the environment and our bodies. Once an innovation in convenience, plastic straws have contributed to the unnatural disaster that is plastic pollution.

If you like using a straw, don’t worry—there are sustainable alternatives.

What to do with plastic straws: recycle, reduce or replace?

Straws are plastic so they can be recycled, right? Wrong. We can blame the current state of plastic straw affairs on this assumption, but the secret is out.

Standard plastic straws are commonly made from the plastic resin polypropylene, plus fillers and additives. As a #5 plastic, polypropylene is recyclable, and increasingly accepted in curbside recycling programs. Straws are the exception though. Due to their shape and size, they fall through the cracks of recycling machinery.


So where do all those straws end up, rejected by recycling or otherwise?

Anything recycling systems can’t accept is considered trash and is sent to landfills where it takes each plastic straw about 200 years to break down. But a large number of straws get blown out of the garbage or are littered, then end up adding to ocean plastic pollution. Here, the breakdown process takes 500 years.

Don’t get it wrong though—these straws aren’t decomposing like cardboard. Plastic is not an organic material, so broken down plastic gets churned into microplastic, which is showing up everywhere, including in our drinking water and food system.

Since there’s no way to safely dispose of straws, reducing and replacing them is the best solution.

Who really needs plastic drinking straws?

Humans like straws. Proof of this goes back 5,000 years when ancient Sumerians shared beverages with drinking tubes made of stones and metals. In 1888, a patent on paper straws kicked off innovation that led to the mass production of plastic straws in the 1960s.

But do we really need straws? For some people, such as those with autism, tremors, and physical limitations, the answer is yes. Hospitals were a large supporter of the flexible plastic straw design that emerged in the 1930s, which made it easier for patients to drink liquids.

For those who can say “no” to straws, the solution sounds simple, but there are some nuances. Jessica Kooiman, sustainability blogger at Impact For Good shares a tip for avoiding straws when dining out. “I scope out the restaurant when I walk in, and if everyone has a straw, I assume they put the straw in the drink before they hand it to you.” Her pre-order observation determines whether she specifies “no straw, please” with her order. When it arrives, she uses her own straw or sips without.

Single-use plastic straw bans

Governments and companies around the world are joining in on saying “no, thanks” to straws. Some businesses are nixing them voluntarily, while countries, states, and municipalities are passing laws to ban straws and other single-use plastics. In some cases, these laws mean a fine for distributing single-use plastic straws at all, or a policy to only provide them upon request. Since making a switch can impact a business’s bottom line, there’s fair warning to ease into the new system before fines are applicable.

It’s too soon to tell if plastic straw bans are working, but many businesses seem to be embracing alternatives to reduce waste and please conscious customers.

Straw bans can be observed in U.S. cities and states, mainly those near coastlines where ocean and beach pollution is a visible issue such as Seattle, Miami Beach, and Malibu. The single-use plastic reduction is a global effort, with rules against straws in place or on the table in New Delhi, Taiwan, France, and the U.K.

It’s too soon to tell if plastic straw bans are working, but many businesses seem to be embracing alternatives to reduce waste and please conscious customers.

Plastic straw alternatives in restaurants

Paper straws are making a comeback as the single-use straw of choice. This time they have improved durability thanks to advanced protective coatings, plus the same features people love about plastic such as the “bendy” design and larger sizes for bubble tea.

Before paper straws, there were straw straws. More specifically, rye stalks were common. Today, wheatgrass is more readily available and wheat stems are processed into drinking straws. Restaurants are taking advantage of this option, but paper straws are the most popular.

As restaurants adopt straw alternatives, they’re also adopting the policy to only provide straws upon request. This helps balance the increased cost of non-plastic straws but also cuts down on overall waste. Aardvark straws, the world’s top producer of paper straws, states on their website that offering straws upon request only cuts straw consumption by 40%.

Best reusable straw options

Are you ready to embrace eco-friendly reusable straws? Here are five options to wet your whistle.

reusable bamboo straw
Bamboo: This sustainable favorite grows in reeds, providing a single piece of material that is shaped into a straw. Sold in packs, they’re a cost-effective way to provide straws for a family. If it shows signs of wear, it can be composted. It’s recommended that you hand wash and air dry bamboo straws.

Glass: They may look delicate, but glass straws are often made from borosilicate, a highly durable commercial glass. You can find glass straws in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes for a fair price.

reusable collapsible stainless steel straw
Stainless steel: A workforce in any shape it takes, stainless steel is a small investment that will last a lifetime. Steel straws can retain heat, so they are mainly recommended for cold drinks. You can find them in long and short lengths for all cup sizes, both of which are dishwasher safe. There are now also collapsible models with carrying cases for ease and portability.

Copper: Copper straws are also an option, though they may require special care to prevent tarnishing and wear and are not dishwasher safe. Seek out food safe copper.

reusable bamboo straw
Silicone: Look no further for a kid-friendly, flexible and durable straw. Silicone is also a great option if you have sensitive teeth or just want a softer straw. Hand-wash or toss them in the dishwasher. They can be used with hot and cold beverages. Be sure to choose platinum silicone, which is made without toxic chemicals.

Cleaning and maintenance

Your new straw comes with its own hygiene routine. Special straw cleaning brushes ensure any residue gets scrubbed out. Rinsing your straw after using it is also a good habit. Dishwashing may or may not be recommended, so be sure to check the instructions.

But what about taking your straw out for dinner? Sticking a naked straw in your purse or pocket isn’t sanitary. Don’t worry—you can keep it clean and safe with a reusable cork sleeve.

Tackling the plastic problem

Choose your straw alternative and use it proudly with the knowledge that it’s one small step toward purging the nuisance of plastics.

Ireland became a model country for plastic pollution reduction in 2002 with their plastic bag tax. They’ve since measured a 95% reduction in plastic bag litter.

Some argue that more drastic moves need to be made to change the deep integration of plastic in society. It is true that straws are only a small percentage of the problem—they account for about four percent of the ninety-one percent of plastic that never gets recycled.

Still, tackling one small piece at a time seems to be the best way to create measurable change. Ireland became a model country for plastic pollution reduction in 2002 with their plastic bag tax. They’ve since measured a 95% reduction in plastic bag litter. By breaking plastic elimination down into steps, individuals and governments can concentrate their efforts and embrace new systems.

How saying ‘no thanks’ makes a difference

Eliminating straws isn’t the only solution, but it will send a clear message to the places where we dine. “Since we’re the customers, we hold the power. Us saying no is us placing our vote for what we want in the world, and companies are paying attention to that,” explains Kooiman, who also holds a bachelor’s of business administration degree in marketing.

Passing on the plastic in a public setting opens the door to start a much-needed conversation while helping rewire your plastic consumption habits. You can always find eco-friendly alternatives to plastic.

Take it one straw at a time

Light and little plastic straws entered the world without any plan for properly disposing of them, but now we know they aren’t a sustainable option. Use your awareness to empower yourself and others to pass on single-use straws. Every time this choice is made, the market will continue to shift toward sustainable business practices. Every straw turned down is one more vote for a planet free of plastic pollution.

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