Many restaurants have banned plastic straws due to their harmful effects on the environment, and have switched to paper alternatives instead. But, are paper straws really better for the environment?
The answer isn’t as simple as you may think:
While it’s true that paper straws aren’t as harmful as plastic straws, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t harmful at all. In fact, paper straws can still have many negative environmental effects, especially if they are improperly disposed.
First, let’s go over what exactly makes plastic straws so bad for the environment. Then, we’ll go over how paper straws compare to plastic in terms of environmental impact, and why using paper straws might not be the most eco-friendly decision.
What Makes Plastic Straws Bad for the Environment?
Plastic straws (which are single-use items) become a large problem for the environment after they are thrown away.
Australians use about 10 million straws every day, or 3.5 billion a year, according to government information, and most of those end up either in landfills or polluting the environment.
Plastic straws create a huge problem when they are improperly disposed. When a plastic straw enters the environment, it can get carried by the wind and rain into bodies of water (like rivers), and eventually enter the ocean.
Once there, plastic can be extremely harmful to various marine animals and to the ocean ecosystem. Plastic can mistaken for food, and can choke or kill animals like birds or sea turtles.
To see first-hand the damaging effects of plastic straws on marine life, the video below shows researchers removing a straw from a sea turtle’s nose. It likely got stuck after the turtle accidentally swallowed the straw, and got it stuck while trying to cough it out.
To make matters worse, plastic straws are not biodegradable, and they aren’t accepted by the majority of curbside recycling programs either. This means that once a plastic straw is used and thrown out, it will always remain in the environment as a piece of plastic.
How do Paper Straws Compare?
Overall, it’s true that paper straws are probably much better for the environment than their plastic counterparts. However, paper straws still come with their own set of environmental disadvantages.
For one, many people believe that paper products are less resource-intensive to manufacture than plastic straws. After all, paper is biodegradable and comes from trees, which is a renewable resource.
Unfortunately, that is simply not the case! In fact, paper products in general require more energy and resources to manufacture than plastic products (Source). This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s actually true!
For example, the production of paper bags uses four times as much energy as the production of plastic ones. In general, more greenhouse gases are emitted during the production of paper products than their plastic counterparts.
This occurs because fossil fuels power the machinery and equipment used in the production of both plastic and paper straws. But since paper products are more energy-intensive to produce, the production of paper straws actually uses more resources (and emits more greenhouse gases) than the production of plastic straws!
Making matters worse, paper straws also have the ability to harm animals if they are littered into the ocean, much like plastic straws. With that being said, however, paper straws will generally still be less harmful than plastic, because it is a lot less durable, and should biodegrade.
Why did I say, “plastic straws should biodegrade”? Well, I’ll talk about that next.
Are Paper Straws Really Biodegradable or Compostable?
One of the main arguments for the environmental-friendliness of paper over plastic straws is that paper is biodegradable.
Just because regular paper is biodegradable, doesn’t mean that paper straws are biodegradable. What’s more, the term biodegradable can have different definitions, and can sometimes be misleading.
To be considered “biodegradable,” the carbon material of a product has to break down by only 60% after 180 days. In real world situations, the paper could last a lot longer than 180 days (but will still disappear faster than plastic, of course).
To make matters worse, in cities where most of us live, we generally do not compost our waste products or leave them in nature to biodegrade. Think about it: If you go to a fast food restaurant, there is rarely ever a compost bin. Instead, your paper straws will most likely go into the normal trash and end up in a landfill.
Landfills are specifically designed to prevent decomposing, which means that if you throw your paper straw out into the trash, it will probably never biodegrade. This means that your paper straw would just be adding to the piles of garbage on Earth.
But, Aren’t Paper Straws Recyclable?
Paper products in general are usually recyclable, and this means that in general, paper straws are recyclable.
However, most recycling facilities will not accept food-contaminated paper products. Since paper absorbs liquids, it may be the case that your paper straws will not be recycled.
Does this mean that paper straws are completely non-recyclable? Not exactly, but if your paper straw has food residue on it (for example, from drinking smoothies), then it may not be recycled.
Conclusion: What Should I Do About Paper Straws?
In conclusion, just because some restaurants have switched over to paper straws, doesn’t mean that you should use them. It’s clear that paper straws are still harmful to the environment, even if plastic straws are more harmful.
In the end, paper straws still have large environmental consequences, and are definitely not eco-friendly. For the most part, they are still a single-use waste item.
So, what can you do to mitigate your environmental footprint?
The easiest way to reduce your environmental impact (in regards to straws) is to refuse all straws altogether.
Make sure that whenever you go to restaurants, you request a drink without the straw. Restaurants usually give out straws automatically with your drink, so it’s important that you ask before you order.
Substituting our use of plastic straws with paper alternatives is like replacing a McDonald’s diet with a KFC diet—both are unhealthy for your health, just as both plastic and paper straws are unhealthy for our environment.
Last Updated: July 9, 2019
A previous version of this article stated that the raw materials used in the production of plastic straws emitted more new greenhouse gases than the raw materials used in the production of paper straws. While this was true, it was redundant, as the overall production of paper straws emits more greenhouse gases than the production of plastic straws anyway. This section of the article has been removed.