Opinionista Ivo Vegter 30 July 2019

Clutching at (plastic) straws is a futile and annoying gesture

Britain is the latest country to join the fad for banning plastic straws. This is a meaningless but annoying gesture to appease environmentalists. In terms of plastic pollution, it will make a negligible difference. In terms of environmental impact, it might be negative. And did I mention annoying?

Before drinking straws were made of convenient, sanitary and durable plastic, they were made from paper. In 1888, Marvin Stone received a patent for artificial straws, or, as the advertising would have it, “Stone’s Patent Paper Julep Straws”.

The first problem Stone encountered was that they got soggy, which led him to experiment with straws made from Manila paper coated with paraffin wax. To this day, however, that problem has not been solved.

By the third sip I was trying to suck the pricey cocktail through a wet noodle, the straw’s insides fraying, emanating the smell of soggy paper,” lamented a drinks connoisseur in an up-market magazine in 2017.

In 1937, Joseph Friedman received a patent for a flexible version of the paper straw. It took him a while to commercialise his invention, but 10 years later he made his first sale, to a hospital. They proved to be substantially superior to the glass straws being used at the time because patients could use them lying down, they were disposable, they didn’t need sterilisation, and they didn’t break.

During the 1960s, manufacturers began making straws from plastic. They were cheaper and didn’t fall apart as paper straws did. Almost 60 years later, however, they’re the latest battle zone in the war against pollution.

In line with the trend of children telling adults what to do (witness Greta Thunberg), the number being bandied about by the anti-straw campaign in the US, that 500 million straws are being used per day, was produced by a nine-year-old.

Yet a growing number of cities and countries are buckling to the pressure and banning plastic drinking straws. The UK is the latest country to do so, according to The Guardian.

In the article, it says: “Surveys have recently found waterways across the UK teeming with plastic, putting wildlife at risk”.

This claim is linked to another Guardian article, which in turn refers to a “report” (read: propaganda pamphlet) entitled Plastic Rivers, published by two activist groups, the EarthWatch Institute and Plastic Oceans International. It finds that straws account for some fraction of 1% of plastic litter in European rivers. The rest of the 1% (the bulk of it, probably) is made up of plastic drink stirrers and disposable plastic cutlery.

It recommends that people use reusable bottles for water, reusable containers for fast food, reusable plastic cups for drinks, reusable cutlery and drink stirrers, and reusable shopping bags.

Because hey, that’s convenient. Every time you go out on the town, you’ll need to gear up like a camper, with a backpack full of reusable stuff, which you can then bring home dirty (without first wrapping them in disposable plastic, of course), and wash using hot water and soap that doesn’t pollute and uses hardly any energy at all.

For straws, in particular, the “report” prefers those made of paper, provided they are recycled or composted after use. Of course, no reputable recycler will accept paper contaminated with food waste for recycling, and composting paper straws is wildly impractical. They’ll just go into the trash. It also recommends reusable straws made from bamboo, steel, glass or silicone.

Paper straws, of course, were replaced by plastic straws for a very good reason. Paper straws are more expensive, and they get soggy halfway through your drink. By the time you get to the bottom, it tastes like wet toilet paper in your mouth.

Reusable straws pose problems of a different kind. For a start, they can kill you by impaling you through the eye, as happened to the unfortunate 60-year-old Elena Struthers-Gardner at her home in Broadstone, England.

More commonly, they can give you terrible diseases if they’re not kept squeaky clean, and cleaning a straw is not an easy thing. You need specialised tools, plus the aforementioned hot water and dish soap.

Confirming the relative insignificance of plastic straws in the plastic pollution problem, they account for 0.022% of plastic waste that ends up in the oceans, every year. Giving up plastic straws might solve one 4,500th of the plastic pollution problem. That does make the other 4,449 parts of the problem look far less daunting, doesn’t it?

Except it won’t solve even that small fraction of the problem. The problem of plastic pollution is not centred upon the rich countries, or South Africa, for that matter.

Of the top 20 rivers that carry plastic to the ocean, accounting for two-thirds of all river-borne plastic pollution, none are in developed countries. They each account for 1,000 times more waste than the average river in the US, Europe or South Africa. If you want to make a dent in plastic pollution, start by telling China, India and Indonesia to lay off plastics.

A study in the English Channel found that the average fish had ingested less than two particles of microplastic, and 93.4% of those particles came from clothing fibres.

Of all oceanic plastic debris, the vast majority consists of abandoned fishing gear, not plastic drinking straws.

Switching to paper straws might reduce the tiny fraction of plastic pollution caused by straws, but it won’t do much for the environment overall. Paper straws are more resource-intensive to manufacture. Manufacturing a paper product causes twice as much pollution, uses three times more water, and consumes four times as much energy as a comparable plastic item. This is why paper straws are more expensive than plastic straws. They are bigger and heavier than plastic straws, which means they require more resources to transport. They create more waste by volume than plastic, and treated paper doesn’t biodegrade all that much faster than plastic.

What will actually help is not littering. If all waste were disposed of properly in landfills, we wouldn’t have a plastic pollution problem. Well, except for the pollution caused by large developing countries, and except for all that fishing gear.

Just as with the plastic bag case, it turns out making straws from plastic might be the best solution not only for reasons of quality, practicality, safety and price, but even for the environment.

Doing away with plastic straws will make such a negligible impact that it serves only to deceive people into thinking they’re helping the environment, when in fact they’re doing nothing at all. Refusing or banning plastic straws is a snobbish but insignificant social gesture. It’s virtue-signalling. It is not a practical action against pollution. It is merely annoying. DM

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