Drinking straws have been the pin-up bad guys of plastic pollution for years – and for good reason; they are completely unnecessary for the vast majority of people and are almost always thrown in the trash after just one use.
Straws may seem like a small issue, especially when there’s just one sitting in your drink, but Americans use hundreds of millions of plastic straws every day, which combined have a real impact on the environment. What’s more, plastic straws can’t be recycled. They are too small and lightweight to make it through most mechanical recycling sorters, meaning they end up either contaminating plastics that actually are recyclable, being sent to the landfill, or making their way into waterways.
Once plastic straws find their way into marine ecosystems, they can sicken and kill wildlife or break down into microplastics, which go on to pollute every step of the food chain from tiny marine life to human beings.
While straws have been a major focus of anti-plastic movements, they actually account for just 0.025 percent of the eight million tons of plastic that flows into the ocean every year. However, the fact that such a potent polluter accounts for such a small fraction of total plastic pollution speaks more about the severity of the overall problem rather than detracting from the issue of straws. What’s more, this is by weight, with other reports suggesting that in the US, straws make up more than 7 percent of the plastic pollution by piece.
At this point, it’s reasonable to ask: why have drinking straws at all? It’s that question that has made plastic straws such a focus of campaigners; they are low-hanging fruit for those looking to kick single-use plastics.
However, straws play a vital role for many people, namely those with certain disabilities, the elderly, or anyone with permanent or temporarily reduced mobility. People rely on straws to consume food and beverages as well as engage in social activities such as going to a bar that would prove problematic, if not impossible, without the use of a straw. It’s for this reason that many people are opposed to outright bans on plastic straws.
That said, there are alternatives to single-use plastics for those who don’t rely on straws, and we’re going to make a rundown of some of the best zero-waste straw alternatives available.
Reusable straws are the go-to option for many people looking to be zero waste since, unlike single-use straws, they can be kept and cleaned after use. What’s more, reusable straws avoid some of the issues of non-plastic single-use straws such as allergens and the possibility of them still being dumped in a landfill.
1. Bamboo Straws
Bamboo straws are a very popular option and can be used for hot and cold beverages, which their metal counterparts can sometimes struggle with. They also tend to be a little bit wider, making them ideal for thicker drinks like smoothies or milkshakes. What’s more, since they’re made of bamboo, these biodegradable straws can be sent to your compost heap once they’ve sucked their last smoothie.
Reusable bamboo straws can be a little tricky to clean, so make sure you get a high-quality kit that comes with a cleaning brush.
2. Stainless Steel Straws
Stainless steel straws are another great reusable option, offering a hardy, long-lasting straw with similar dimensions to the single-use plastic ones you’re used to. They are relatively easy to clean with a dedicated brush, so again find a kit that bundles one of the correct size.
It’s worth noting that stainless steel straws are great conductors of heat, so be cautious when using them in very hot or cold drinks.
3. Glass Straws
If you don’t like the feel of bamboo or other plastic alternatives, glass straws might be a good option. What’s more, cleaning glass straws is considerably easier than other alternatives since, while it still requires a special brush, you can see inside!
Glass also conducts heat quite well so there are similar problems to a metal straw. However, this heat transfer will often be similar to the glass you’re drinking out of, so if you can touch your cup, you can sip on your straw.
4. Silicone Straws
Silicone straws are plastic, but they aren’t single-use. Silicone straws offer a greater level of flexibility than any of the other reusable options while remaining easy to clean and good at stopping heat conduction.
While it’s almost always better to reuse rather than recycle or compost, there are some options for disposable straws that have less impact on the environment than their plastic counterparts.
5. Sugarcane Straw
As the name suggests, these biodegradable straws are paper- and plastic-free and made from 100% plant-based materials. They stand up to hot and cold drinks, are completely compostable and made from renewable materials, and no, they don’t taste like sugar. Importantly, unlike some other plastic-free straws, sugarcane straws can be composted at home, rather than having to go to an industrial facility.
6. Paper Straws
Paper straws are an alternative to plastic straws, but have to be disposed of after one use, or sometimes before. There are many options out there designed to break down quickly and most are technically compostable straws since they’re made exclusively of organic material. To make using paper straws more sustainable, make sure to check that the wood comes from a certified source and isn’t contributing to further deforestation.
7. Wheat Straws
These plant-based straws are made from the stem that is left after the wheat grains are harvested. This makes them one of the best biodegradable straws since these stems are usually regarded as waste, and would be tossed or burned by the farmer. Like paper straws, they are only meant for one use but being a piece of plant, they can be composted at home relatively simply.
8. Pasta Straws
Usually made from wheat, these biodegradable straws offer an edible alternative to single-use plastic straws. They are relatively rigid unless used in hot drinks where they have a tendency to go mushy. One of the major drawbacks of pasta straws has been the gluten they contain, which is a significant allergen. However, there are now companies working with rice flour to get around this issue.
9. Biodegradable Plastic Straws
There are a range of straws made from PLAs (polylactic acids), created from plant-based material such as corn starch or sugarcane. These are almost indistinguishable from their petroleum-based counterparts, which makes them popular for catering. They behave much like regular plastic but are, in theory, biodegradable straws. That said, they require specific, industrial composters to break down and due to their similarity to regular plastics can often end up in recycling streams, causing contamination.
These nine reusable or biodegradable straws are great alternatives to single-use plastics, but there are plenty more options out there made of everything from seaweed to grass to tapioca. Learn more about what’s available locally and find your perfect zero-waste straw alternative.
To learn more about zero-waste management and how businesses can implement greener practices, contact us at zerowaste.com today or check out more articles and information on our blog.