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Jan Lee headshot

Single-Use Plastic: Are Paper Straws Really the 'Eco-Friendly' Answer?

By Jan Lee

After a month of relative silence over the challenges of workplace bias training, Starbucks was back in the news last week. This time it wasn’t to talk about its human resources policies or its laudable efforts to encourage Americans to open up about racial perceptions. It was to challenge the menace of a world-wide foe.

Single-use plastic. The lowly plastic straw, to be precise.

Starbucks’ announcement that it would be nixing plastic straws from its products by 2020 was only the latest indication that companies across the globe are now marshaling efforts to stop the use of materials that can’t be funneled into dedicated recycle streams.

But is it enough?

So far,  Pernod Ricard, MacDonald’s, IKEA and other companies have come forward to suggest that their products will soon be sold without straws. A few companies are attempting to develop their own innovative solutions. But few, other than Starbucks and Pernod Ricard, which has partnered with a company that produces edible, bioplastic straws, have been willing to say just what that will look like.

In addition to the paper straws Starbucks says it will have on hand for cold drinks, it’s designed a new, sleek lid to go with its Nitro Cold Brew. It may not be as sexy as the iconic plastic straw, but it does offer a nostalgic reminder of an icy milkshake (or in this case, the iced coffee) you could slurp just like a kid.

The question that remains though, is just how other brands will be able to reshape their presentation. So far most are relying on paper – what straws were first made of when they were invented by the Sumerians for beer some 7,000 years ago, and later redesigned in the 1800s.

But that switch comes with a price for companies: paper straws are about two- to three-times more expensive than plastic. Some companies estimate it costs about 3 cents a product to furnish a paper straw with a drink. That may not sound like much, but it can make an impact on the bottom line for a franchise that sells hundreds of drinks a day.

And as some disability rights groups note, the new product sourcing come with challenges for mobility-impaired individuals who need straws to eat and drink. What works for the average able-bodied consumer may not work for individuals who have other functional demands and have a high choking risk.

Still, to return to the original question that fueled this movement: Will dumping plastic straws for plastic lids and a tsunami-level demand for paper straws make our drinks more eco-sustainable?

As of 2014, reports the website, TheWorldCounts, at least a quarter of the waste shipped to landfills comprised paper; a third of urban waste came from paper products, substances that are historically a huge drain on dwindling fresh water resources.

Will businesses recycle their used straws or send them to the garbage can? According to Aardvark Straws, it’s unlikely that the millions of paper straws destined to enter the restaurant supply chains will end up in recycling depots.

“Even though our straws are made out of paper, most recyclers will not accept food contaminated paper products. So depending on your recycling facility, they may be, but most likely not. That is why we suggest composting our straws instead,” the company said on its website.

A bright side the company offers is that paper breaks down much faster in water and in soil than other materials. Paper straws take 1-2 months to compost, and only about 6 months to break down in salt water.

That’s good. Because as the present time, the demand for paper straws appear to have outpaced our ability to create dependable recycling stream mechanisms that will keep them out of landfills and ocean gyres.

Which seems to bring the topic back to a broader issue: single-use products – and specifically, products that haven’t been accounted for with a dedicated recycle stream – that fulfill a narrow purpose.

Perhaps the broader challenge at this point isn’t to find new sources with which to manufacture old standby products as we seem to be increasingly doing, but develop alongside those products, new, reliable ways to ensure they make it into the recycle stream.

Takers, anyone?

Flickr image: Marco Verch

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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