Plastic straws are everywhere. Head out to any restaurant, cafe, coffee shop or club and you can hardly move without an unassuming bendy pipe being thrust at you and your drink. Finish your glass, and before long a new one will be presented. Night after night, this endless cycle of straws goes on all over the world without most of us paying the slightest bit of attention. After all, what could be the harm in a teeny tube of plastic?
Now however, the world is waking up to the impact of our plastic addition. One of plastic’s biggest strengths as a building material is its natural resistance to decay. It might take paper as little as two weeks to fully decompose in a landfill site. For plastic straws, that time is estimated to be a minimum 500 years. When you take a step back and think just how many we use each and every day, all across the world, the scale of the problem starts to become all too clear.
As we are beginning to understand, the impact plastic straws can have on the planet is devastating. Most discarded plastic ends up in the ocean, where it becomes a serious hazard for marine life. A 2015 video from Costa Rica shows scientists removing a plastic straw from the nose of turtle, where it had been blocking its airway, in just one snapshot of the damage these things are doing every single day.
We are also beginning to discover that it’s not just sea creatures that struggle when plastic enters the food chain. As small pieces are consumed, dangerous chemicals can be passed from predator to predator, eventually making their way up to us. Potentially poisonous and capable of doing serious internal damage, plastic is a problem for absolutely everything on earth.
The immediate answer would be recycling. Unfortunately however, in the case of plastic straws, our go-to solution is a non-starter. Thanks to their small size and chemical make up, the vast majority of straws are simply unsuitable for the recycling process - even assuming that they make it to the plant at all - and instead slip through the system and end up in landfill. Obviously, most restaurant goers don’t fancy sharing saliva with a stranger, so almost all straws end up tossed aside after just one use. Small wonder the situation is as serious as it.
Recently, the restaurant industry has begun to wake up to the scale of the problem. This has caused several prominent brands, including McDonald’s and Wetherspoon, to ban straws from being sold in their UK branches, and there are several more big names who look set to follow suit.
Despite the bans coming into place, the situation is not simply as straightforward as a total rejection of the straw. The new proposals have, for instance, come under fire from the disabled community - many of whom rely on utensils like plastic straws to eat and drink. As damaging as they are to the planet, it’s also clear that governments and restaurants need to have a contingency in place to cater for those that really need them.
For those of us who do not require a plastic straw out of physical necessity, the solution is far more simple. If we want to do our bit to look after the planet and the environment, the easiest thing is to swear off plastic straws forever. It might be a little annoying, but for the small price of a few extra seconds spent bringing a drink to your face, it is surely worth it.