The first drinking straw ever found was in a Sumerian tomb dating back to 3,000 B.C. A luxurious item made of solid gold lined with precious blue lapis lazuli stones. It’s been speculated that these straws may have been used to drink alcoholic beverages, avoiding the solids used in the fermenting process. From then on, the history of drinking straws is fuzzy but the next major application of the drinking straw was in the 1800s, with the use of rye grass. The rye grass straw was a 100% biodegradable tool used to add convenience to drinking alcoholic beverages.
However, the organic nature of this material lead to it not lasting very long in drinks and adding a grassy taste to the beverage. To address the shortcomings of the rye grass straw, Marvin Stone patented the first ever paper drinking straw in 1888. What started as a piece of paper wrapped around a pencil secured with glue led to the first commercially made straw, eventually becoming waxed lined to prevent it from dissolving. Paper drinking straws dominated the market with the help of Joseph Friedman’s patent, the kid friendly bendy straw in 1937.
With the introduction of the plastic straw in the 1960s, consumers were given a more durable and reliable option when it came to enjoying drinks. Throughout the 60s, the use of Stone’s paper straws began a slow decline to their eventual phasing out in the 70s. The introduction of the plastic as a feasible alternative also brought along a new wave of creative innovations. In 1961, we saw the invention of what led to an American Icon: the Krazy Straw. A fun, creative spin on the classic tubular straw. Since then, the rise of cheap oil production and mass production techniques has led to plastic drinking straws to dominate all sit-in, take-out, and fast food applications around the world.
But just how many do we consume?
Before writing this article, I’d been aware of the issues surrounding single use plastics, especially with recent news about The Great Pacific Garbage Patch being 4-16 times larger than originally thought. However, I’ve never thought about the plastic drinking straw as a viable target for waste reduction initiatives. Here are some numbers I found on consumption of straws per year around the world. (Estimates were found for the U.S. and the UK, I applied a per capita average from those two and applied it to Canada, calculation are at the end):
U.S. – 182.5 Billion
UK – 8.5 Billion
Canada – 7.7 Billion
In one year, these three countries alone are approaching an astonishing 200 billion straws. To put that into perspective, I took an average non-compacted volume of 4 common sizes of straws that are used in fast food beverages and milkshakes to see how much landfill space they take up (calculations below). The result? 1.55 million Cubic meters, or enough volume to fill 11,685 standard 53’ trailers. If that is hard to picture, 200 billion standard 7.5” straws stuck end to end could reach 70% of the way to Mars.
Yes, you read that correctly, Mars.
One of the most important reasons for supporting the reduction of plastic straws and single use plastics is the simple fact that they never disappear, ever. They will continue to accumulate in our landfills and oceans until an alternative is found. Another very damaging effect of single use plastics is what happens to plastic once in the ocean. Plastic is not biodegradable, but it does break down into tiny pieces called microplastics that poison the aquatic food chain around the world. Among many other reasons, plastics are incredibly toxic to produce. Additives to plastics such as flame retardants, BPAs, and PVCs can pollute land resources as well.
What is being done?
A lot, actually. A number of organizations, private companies, municipalities, and even entire nations, are beginning to wage the war against single use plastics and the plastic drinking straw in particular. Locally, The Last Straw Toronto organized a one day event which almost 150 Toronto bars and restaurants took place in, aiming to not use plastic straws for one day. Two countries that have publicly announced plans to tackle this issue are Taiwan and Scotland. Both countries have targets for a 2019 implementation of a complete ban, and forcing major chain restaurants to stop providing plastic straws for in-store use, respectively. Recently, UK Prime Minister Theresa May said waste “was one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the world,” as she announced the UK could ban the sale of plastic straws. Municipalities including Malibu and San Luis Obispo in California, Seattle in Washington, and Ft. Myers Beach in Florida are all addressing the reduction of plastic straws through bans or other methods in 2018. Perhaps one of the largest contributors to the reduction of plastic straws is one of the most recognized brands of all time, McDonald’s. All 1,300 of McDonald’s locations in the UK are part of a plan to begin phasing out the plastic straw. Trials of new paper straws will begin in May 2018 after considerations from customers requesting not to be given straws. A number of alternative materials to plastics include aluminum, steel, or biodegradable straws, all of which are widely available online and in bulk.
However, there are still barriers to widespread adoption of straws made of metal or compostable materials, mainly financial. John Sidanta, founder and CEO of Primaplast, said straws made from biodegradable plastic are currently five to six times more expensive than standard plastic products.
It’s time to understand the true cost of cheap single-use plastics in the food industry by factoring in the damage to aquatic ecosystems and the costs of cleaning up our beaches, oceans, and landfills. It seems all too easy to write off straws and other small items as causes of much larger issues.
The time has come to #suckitup, and make small decisions that really do make a difference.
Jason Gale, EPt, Environmental Coordinator at Cascades Recovery.