Another Voice: What’s next after banning plastic
Published August 26, 2019 By Marty Walters
East Aurora’s plastic straw ban begs the question: What are the alternatives to single-serve plastic straws?
As founder of a local wheat drink straw company, I have spent the last eight months surveying the straw landscape.
Some people purchase permanent straws. These they carry in pocket or purse. Metal, glass, silicone and bamboo straws are among the permanent class. Permanent straws need to be properly stored and regularly cleaned and disinfected.
For single use, there are three main alternatives to plastic straws: paper, plant-based plastic and wheat stem drink straws.
Paper straws were used for many years in the United States, until cheap plastic straws presented a less expensive option, albeit with unforeseen consequences.
There are a few high-quality paper straws manufactured in the United States, but they are relatively expensive. Imported paper straws abound. They are not well-liked. At an Earth Day event at the Buffalo Zoo, I asked many people about paper straws. I received more than 100 negative comments on paper straws, and cannot recall a single positive comment. Cheap paper straws tend to turn mushy and may impart taste to a drink.
Plant-based plastic straws hold promise, but there are many factors to consider. A study from the University of Pittsburgh that compared life cycle costs (including fertilizer, pesticides and chemical processes) of producing PLA, to life cycle costs of producing traditional plastics, showed a higher amount of pollutants generated in manufacturing PLA.
According to the State of the Planet blog published by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, PLAs have a lower lifetime carbon footprint than petroleum-based plastic. While some PLAs are easily biodegradable, many need to be placed in an industrial composting facility to quickly biodegrade.
The blog also noted that, “When bioplastics are not discarded properly, they can contaminate batches of recycled plastic and harm recycling infrastructure.” So, separate waste streams need to be created.
It should be noted that many people are working on innovations that can solve the aforementioned problems.
Wheat stem drink straws have pros and cons as well. Made from wheat, they have a smaller diameter than a traditional straw, closer to the ubiquitous tall black plastic cocktail straw. Wheat stems break if they are pinched too hard. They cost more than cheap paper straws.
On the other hand, wheat stems work well in hot or cold drinks, and remain firm in water for weeks at a time. Wheat drink straws are gluten-free, since the gluten in wheat is mostly found in the seed head.
Marty Walters is the founder of Real Straw LLC in Derby.