It’s no secret that the overconsumption of single use plastics is seriously harming the global environment. Over 8 million tons of plastic are discarded into the oceans every year, up to 4% of which is estimated to come from plastic drinking straws. But how much of this is avoidable? Well, that depends on what consumers are willing to go without. Of this plastic waste, some is considered essential by many and some less so.
Recently, the spotlight has been focused heavily on one source of this waste, namely plastic straws.
Many countries and cities have begun introducing legislation limiting or banning plastic straws. The EU passed a bill in December 2018 to ban a wide range of disposable plastic items by 2021, amongst them plastic straws. Also in 2018, Seattle became the largest US city to ban plastic straws. Taiwan, Rio de Janeiro, New York City, Hawaii, Miami beach and multiple cities in California are all moving towards bans on plastic straws.
But, where one door closes, another opens. As these bans come into force, undoubtedly there will remain a demand for straws. So, are there more sustainable alternatives? We outline some of the most popular straws and ask which is the most sustainable and ideal alternative.
Metals are some one of the most widely used materials in the world, thanks to their versatility and ease of manufacture. Food grade stainless steel which is used in metal straws includes grades 316, 304 and 430.
While stainless steel is an excellent material for food applications, as it can be easily washed and reused indefinitely, a steel straw can have a distinctive feel to it, a preference for which is down to personal taste. Some, for example, complain of the tendency of steel to quickly become hot or cold, depending on the drink.
That’s why some other materials might be of interest too.
Another alternative to plastic straws, glass, is also becoming seriously popular. One might think that it would be dangerous to use such a fragile material, however many shatter-resistant glasses exist for food applications. One German company, HALM, uses SCHOTT special shock and temperature-resistant glass for their straws to reduce the risk of breakage. Glass is fully reusable and recyclable and, what’s more, even easier to clean than steel as it’s completely transparent.
The mouth-feel of glass is also less controversial than metal and preferred by many, just like the difference between a glass Coke bottle and an aluminium can.
Paper is a reasonable alternative to plastic straws. It was the material of choice before plastic conquered the world and ushered in the age of convenience. However, by nature, paper is water absorbent (unless coated in plastic!). Straws made purely from paper thus become weakened and often even disintegrate after a single use.
If minimising plastic waste is the main priority, paper straws can help. If we want to reduce waste in general, however, replacing one disposable product with another is less than ideal.
Bamboo is a versatile natural material, used for its high strength-to-weight ratio and flexibility in many applications, including construction. It is still used for construction scaffolding in places like Hong Kong. Bamboo has found a place as an excellent alternative to plastic in multiple cases, particularly so for biodegradable toothbrushes.
One of the major advantages of bamboo straws is that they require almost no processing, already growing in the perfect straw form, meaning they take less energy to manufacture in comparison to metal and glass straws.
But how does bamboo perform as a material? It discolours slightly in drinks but doesn’t change its shape. As it is a natural material, it must be kept dry, as if left for too long in a liquid it may start to degrade.
Other biodegradable & edible materials
Many companies have released biodegradable or even edible straws. For example, straws exist that are made from seaweed, wheat and sugar. What’s more, some cafés around the world have found pasta straws, of the bucatini variety to be precise, one of the cheapest alternatives.
Straws made from biodegradable plastic are also taking off, such as those made from polylactic acid (PLA). These would be the closest alternative to existing plastic straws. The validity of the term ‘biodegradable’, however, is very questionable. Mostly, biodegradable materials only break down under a specific set of conditions, which are not typically present where our plastic waste ends up. As such, countries are even moving towards banning oxo-degradable plastics.
In the end, the best alternative to plastic is an individual choice. Do you still want something disposable? Or something that can be cleaned and reused forever? Something with the best mouthfeel? For minimum impact on the environment and for the most pleasant experience, we at Matmatch recommend glass as the material of choice.
“I am keen for readers to look at materials with the same fascination I do and to see how they will impact our future.”
PhD in Physics
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