A lot of things in our lives seem cheap and harmless, but they really aren't. BPA-containing plastic water bottles, for instance. Styrofoam cups. And now, plastic straws. Not that plastic straws will necessarily harm you, but they're not recyclable which means they wind up in landfills and eventually in oceans, where they can do a surprising amount of harm. 

Just how painful straws can be became alarmingly clear in 2015 when researchers from Texas A&M University rescued an endangered sea turtle with a plastic straw jammed up its left nostril. The video of them removing it is too painful to watch all the way through (at least it is for me) but it went viral and inspired 12-year-old Max Machum to start an anti-plastic-straw movement with the hashtag #NoStrawChallenge. (The group Strawless Ocean uses the irresistible hashtag #StopSucking.) The challenge encourages consumers to turn down the offer of a straw with their drinks and restaurants to stop automatically popping plastic straws into every beverage including water. It asks them to only provide a straw if diners request one. Machum is featured in the new documentary short Straws, narrated in part by Oscar winner Tim Robbins.

The anti-straw movement has been picking up steam, with both Seattle and San Luis Obispo, California to begin banning plastic straws altogether next year, at least so far as restaurants are concerned. And it's beginning to have an effect. At a North Carolina beach, some 20 restaurants are now participating in the challenge, and a volunteer who picks up trash on the beach and sometimes counts the straws says they've diminished from about 500 over two weeks to 158. 

If that doesn't seem like a big deal, consider that Americans throw away 500 million plastic straws every day, and that they are the fifth most common trash item found in the oceans. Then there's the recent study that found there would be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050, and that there is already a ton of plastic in the ocean for every human being on Earth. Suddenly that harmless little plastic straw doesn't seem so harmless after all.

Fortunately, there are alternatives.

You actually don't have to stop sucking. That may be good news if you are concerned about staining your teeth, damaging your tooth enamel with acidic beverages, concerned about spilling your drink while walking or driving, or have a disability that makes drinking from a cup challenging. Instead of the ubiquitous plastic straw, consider purchasing or requesting any of these alternatives:

1. Reusable straws.

Stainless steel straws and glass straws make attractive options for home use or for those willing to carry their own straws with them. Glass straws in particular are often highly attractive, pleasant to drink from, and make good gifts. Concerned about breaking a glass straw if you accidentally drop it? Some manufacturers will replace it for free if that happens.

2. Paper straws.

When straws were first invented back in 1888, they were made of paper, not plastic, and the paper straw remained common until the last 40 years or so. Paper straws are biodegradable and not nearly the threat to ocean life that plastic straws are, and they're still widely available. Many restaurants are solving their plastic straw problem by switching to paper, which is a big step in the right direction.

3. Compostable straws.

Compostable straws, made of plant starch, are an even bigger step in the right direction. They cost a bit more than plastic straws, but a lot of restaurants that are supporting the anti-plastic straw movement have made the switch. Compostable straws disappear completely within a few weeks underwater.

4. Reed straws.

Companies like Harvest Straws in California bring us back to the days when all straws were what their name says they are--hollow stalks of plants. They come sanitized and look as uniform as "real" straws do. They are completely biodegradable.

5. Bamboo straws.

As Seattle prepares for its plastic straw-free future, I've been offered these in restaurants. Straw Free sells bamboo drinking straws in 8 and 10-inch lengths, as well as a wider version for bubble tea drinks. Proceeds go to fund the group's straw-awareness efforts.

Published on: Oct 29, 2017
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