Plastic straws to paper straws

From plastic straws to paper straws — A real environmental action or a commercial gimmick?

Do you find any difference when you enjoy the cold drink in McDonald’s compared to one year ago? Do you pay attention to the small change of straw materials?

A silent change: from plastic straws to paper straws

After paper straws launched into the UK successfully in 2018, the directors of McDonald’s Australia stated that over 970 restaurants in Australia would gradually stop using plastic straws by 2020. McDonald’s insisted that this straw material innovation is not a forced response to plastic bans. CEO Paul Pomroy said that this change is an initiative campaign to less plastic pollution, which satisfies the customer requirement of sustainable alternatives as well. Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and other multinational food giants prepare to follow the action of McDonald’s.

https://blogs.unimelb.edu.au/sciencecommunication/files/2019/10/31056218848_a7808a9523_o-600×428.jpg

Unfortunately, some customers doubt that ‘no plastic straw’ is just a commercial gimmick of large enterprises rather than a real environmental action. What are the facts?

The adverse impact of plastic straws on the environment

The annual consumption of plastic straws is enormous. More than 500 million plastic straws are thrown into dustbins per day in America, which could fill in 125 large shuttle buses. In Australia, over 10 million plastic straws are used per day. CleanUp, a non-government environmental organization, reported that plastic straws accounted for 7.5% of all plastic rubbish pickup in the last voluntary clean-up activity.

Most plastic straws are only used once, which lasts for 15 to 30 minutes during the whole lifetime. However, the total time of plastic straw decomposition will up to 200 years. What is worse, plastic straws will gradually fragment into microplastics and accumulate in animals (e.g. fishes, turtles, and seabirds) along food chains, which threatens ecosystems, especially for the ocean.

Although McDonald’s claimed that their plastic straws are recyclable, the fact is that recyclers are reluctant to recycle plastic straws. One reason is that the costs of reusing synthetic straw materials are higher than directly producing straws with new materials. Another reason is that straws will fall through cracks of the conveyor belt, which leads to the facility breakdown.

Paper straws: new opportunities?

https://blogs.unimelb.edu.au/sciencecommunication/files/2019/10/35337269544_2ed981f510_o.jpg
Bright colourful paper straws by Marco Verch (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Paper straws provide new options to reduce plastic pollution. However, some customers complained that they would no longer enjoy cold drinks, particularly smoothies, due to the nondurability of the new straw. Some upset customers started an online petition to use plastic straws again, which had more than 50,000 signatures. These opponents begin to carp at this new type of straw.

The first critical point is that most paper straws are none recyclable. Some processors add plastic coatings on the inner layer of the straw to improve paper performance in liquid. The lining prevents straws from recycling. Others use condensed paper to increase durability, which is too thick to be processed in current facilities. In some regions, straws contaminated by food (e.g. milk and juice) are refused by recyclers. So, the final destinations of most paper straws are landfills.

Some opponents also point out that the production of paper straws will consume more energy and resources than plastics. The excess consumption leads to higher costs (3 cents per product) than traditional straws (1 cent per product). These opponents worry that enterprises would upload these extra costs to consumers.

The petition to bring back plastic straws is shortsighted. Papers decompose much faster than plastics. One report pointed the biodegradation or compost of real paper straws only lasts one to two months. And the complete paper breakdown takes less than six months in the ocean. In other words, paper straws are far safer in ecosystems than plastics that takes 200 years to decompose. The technical advance will provide more available facilities at lower prices for recycling in the future. And a responsible company is voluntary to achieve excellence for the society.

Other solutions

Due to the high consumption of energy and resources, paper straw is only expediency. Public awareness improvement is the ultimate solution to plastic straw problems. For restaurants and retailers, it will be better only to provide straws when consumers require. For consumers, they can try to drink without straws or with reusable ones (e.g. steel, glass or bamboo straws) or alternative natural drinking straws such as wheat straws, grass straws and PLA free straws. If consumers have to use paper straws, please not throw them in the dustbins. Please collect and bury paper straws into the gardens, and these straws will transfer into fertilizers to nourish plants.

Sourced: The University of Melbourne Blog

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