The popular tide has turned against plastic straws bringing them from objects of convenience down to symbols of waste and pollution, particularly of marine trash. How many images of poor turtles with plastic straws stuck in their noses have you seen this year? The shift in public perception is a win for the environment sector, as the growing voices of a now straw-hating public have triggered a slew of ordinances and policies worldwide that ban their use.
But here’s the argument: while single-use plastic is definitely a problem, the solutions we have adopted to tackle the issue of plastic straws and plastic waste in general are more band-aid substitutions rather than actual in-depth management of the issue. Case in point: the solution being presented to solve Strawgate, the metal, reusable straw.
But it makes sense – replace single use products with alternatives that can be used multiple times before the end of their lifespan, effectively cutting down the amount of trash that we generate. The dirty past when we didn’t know any better was when every drink you purchased from a kiosk or a fast food joint came with a plastic straw that you throw away without a second thought when you got through your last sip. Consumers now are informed, so we bring our own straws and use them for all the beverages we consume.
The solution seems ideal, especially with trendy options like hologram designs and neat little pouches to carry your straw around. Plus metal isn’t our only option. There’s bamboo, paper, glass – a whole slew of alternatives to choose from so we can address the plastic problem. Even pasta.
Consumer reviews of each product often help you decide what your best alternative is by factoring in the straws integrity in use, how it affects the taste of the beverage, and whether it can be used for hot or cold liquids. But that’s not all we, consumers who care for the environment, must consider.
No product is without its environmental impact. Bamboo and paper products have been subject to scrutiny because of the deforestation they often necessitate. Bamboo is a fast growing crop, meaning the same plot of land can yield multiple harvests. But the demand for bamboo products, including chopsticks and flooring, can often surpass the naturally available supply. Forest land is still being converted to crop space to accommodate the commercial production levels needed to make bamboo viable as a source material. Glass production uses sand, a material also essential for the production of concrete, electronics, and roads and one that the world is actually and quickly running out of. Sand’s natural production runs on a geological time frame, one that is sadly too slow to keep up with human society’s development demands.
And metal? Stainless steel straws are 100% recyclable and typically made from scrap materials, themselves often recycled. The efficient production method means less energy needed for production and decreased emissions of greenhouse gases. There is no toxic run-off as stainless steel production does not typically involve toxic materials. If not recycled and left in a landfill, stainless steel does not negatively affect soil health or impact groundwater.
So why argue against it? Because despite the reduced emissions and clean sourcing of stainless steel straws, the very core idea of the product is simply unnecessary.
Most of us do not need straws.
For many in the disabled community, plastic straws are absolutely necessary. But for everyone else? It is entirely possible to drink water without a straw, enjoy a soda without a straw, even savor a strawless milkshake. It is possible and it will not affect you like you think it would.
The argument of ‘no perfect substitute’ extends to all forms of material meant to fill the hole left by banishing single use plastics, but the particular case of straws is special because, and this is the kicker – most of us don’t need straws. Unlike taking cutlery, a thermos, a reusable grocery bag or a food container around with you to avoid disposable one-use garbage, the use of straws is entirely elected.
Stainless steel straws are a green product in the sense that they do not create environmental harm through their disposal. But they are by nature also a form of needless waste, needless demand, and needless production. Less greenhouse gas emissions are still greenhouse gas emissions.
Reduce, reuse and recycle is the mantra for pollution management. Substituting the material of an unnecessary good does not solve the problem of over consumption and demand. It does not listen to the mantra from its first word: reduce.
If you don’t need it, don’t use it, purchase it, or necessitate its production. There are many essential industries that contribute to resource depletion and pollution, so why add the burden of an elective one? The green community has grown in its parallel industries catering to the emerging market’s sensibilities.
The enemy is not plastic. It is the want for convenience. Simply substituting the base materials of the items we don’t actually need does not address this issue. And while yes, reusable alternatives can help ease the issue of trash, solid waste disposal is not the only pressing environmental concern today. Not everything needs an eco-alternative because not everything needs to be a thing.
The issues surrounding environmental degradation are complex and the solutions they need are equally so. Confronting this reality is a necessary part of developing true sustainability. Confronting the idea of maybe not using a straw at all, of reducing your level of consumption to not only accommodate reusable wares but also eliminate unnecessary ones – that is by far more sustainable.