By Joseph Willett
It’s sad to say that about 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in our ocean waters each year. This rate only increases over time, since we haven’t really made a good effort to clean up after ourselves.
A step that has been taken is the community-driven effort to ban plastic straws. Is replacing plastic straws for paper that simple of a solution needed to help reduce our waste? Our problem is a culture of single-use products, so simply substituting one form of waste for another is not the sustainable solution our world needs.
For some of us, it seems like the value in using a straw is so high that we tend to ignore the unintended consequences. Companies such as Starbucks think they have an answer to this problem: biodegradable straws, which degrade over time when in contact with water.
When these were first introduced, communities in Florida fell in love with them. Companies began to adopt paper straws as an environmentally friendly alternative and help their public image. But are paper straws really as helpful to aiding the environment as people think?
Let’s address what it takes for a material to be biodegradable. According to The Environmental Protection Agency’s “Criteria for Biodegradability,” a material is biodegradable if after 180 days the material is gone at an average temperature of 57 degrees Celsius (134.6 Fahrenheit). These temperatures aren’t always realistic where waste ends up, so something that is said to be biodegradable could stick around for much longer than the aimed-for 180 days.
According to Adam Merran, CEO of PacknWood, a paper straw distributing company, paper straws are about 10 times the price of normal plastic straws on average. When talking about the difference of half a cent vs. two-and-a-half cents, you might not think this is much, but when you multiply these prices by the 500 million straws America uses every day, the result is a cost difference of $10 million.
The cost of paper straws significantly outweighs the benefits we are seeing, since plastic straws do not make up a large part of the waste in our oceans. The EPA claims that in most regions, paper straws last for 180 days before decomposing. During that time, the paper could become a potentially dangerous object to small ocean life, just like plastic.
If we want to create a world that is better for future generations, we can’t just substitute one form of waste for another. The problem isn’t with the material; it’s with our lifestyle. Any form of single-use products that we can remove from our day-to-day lives, whether it be plastic bags, water bottles or straws, is one step closer to a future Earth we want to leave behind.