Plastic straws are expected to be the next biggest sustainability concern in foodservice disposables. As a nation, we go through 500 million straws a year which, at best, wind up in the landfill. At worst, they end up in rivers, streams, and oceans where they can be ingested by wildlife and marine mammals.
Straws are almost exclusively made of polypropylene, which is one of the most sustainable plastics, but because straws are so small and lightweight, they are rarely recycled even if they make it into a recycle bin.
What are the Alternatives?
Paper and PLA (bio-resin/compostable) straws are available as alternatives to plastic straws. Paper straws, however, are more expensive and have a heavier carbon footprint than do plastic straws. PLA straws are compostable but only in commercial composters – so there is still a significant chance they will still wind up in landfills or in waterways and oceans where they will not degrade, making them problematic still. Wood and metal non-disposable straws are also available, although they’re hard to clean and aren’t good solutions for the foodservice industry.
Good News, Though!
With straws, we can enact the most sustainable choice of all: Reduce Use. Consumers are already seeing “no straw” policies at many zoos, aquariums, parks and universities, in addition to bars and restaurants that are only providing straws if requested.
The city of Seattle has an ordinance to ban disposable plastics for foodservice establishments. “As of July 1, 2018, food services businesses should not be providing plastic straws or utensils,” Seattle Public Utilities’ Strategic Adviser for Product Stewardship, Sego Jackson, said. “What they should be providing are compostable straws or compostable utensils. But they also might be providing durables, reusables, or encouraging you to skip the straw altogether.”
What Can I Do?
You can start by supplying straws only when guests request them. While there will still be some straw use, the number of straws being thrown out will drop significantly. You can use informative messaging to convey to guests that while straws are available, they can participate in sustainable practices by choosing to “skip the straw.” Some education will be necessary to ensure that your guests feel that it’s their choice, rather than something being imposed upon them.
We understand that there will still be a need for straws – some customers feel it’s more sanitary. Straws may also be needed to prevent spills — consider children just learning to drink from a cup or people with physical impairments.
Once you’ve put an “upon request only” program in place, decide what’s the best straw to use. If you’re composting foodservice disposables with a commercial composter, and there’s little to no chance that straws will escape the waste stream and get into waterways, then a PLA compostable straw would be the best choice. If you’re not composting your disposables, and your goal is to present the most sustainable solution possible, then a paper straw might be your best choice. If your goal is to choose products with the best value, then a plastic straw, on request only, will be the best-priced choice.