Plastic Straw Alternatives Aren’t The Most Eco-Friendly, Either. Here’s Why It Matters

Human drinking water (milk tea). Blue paper cup. Taiwan food

Many people have pushed for the elimination of plastic straws, claiming that these single-use items in particular wreaks havoc on the planet. While serious concerns by the disability community about straw bans — and how they will harm many people with disabilities — have been raised, they've largely been ignored. However, as straw bans continued to rise in popularity, it turns out paper straws are not as “sustainable” as they’ve been marketed to be — but switching to them for that reason puts an unnecessary burden on many disabled people.

As CNN reported on Aug. 5, paper straws were rolled out in 1,361 McDonald's restaurants throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland in an effort to be more environmentally-friendly. While the June 2018 switch to paper was initially praised by the British government and many environmentalists, McDonald’s recently said the paper straws are non-recyclable due to their thickness — unlike the plastic straws that were used previously.

“Last year our customers asked us to change our plastic straws to paper ones, we listened, and made that switch in a significant step to reduce single-use plastic. [...] Whilst the materials the straws are made from are recyclable, they cannot currently be processed by waste solution providers or local authorities unless collected separately. This is a wider industry issue, as the infrastructure needed to recycle has not kept pace with the emergence of paper straws,” McDonald’s U.K. said in a statement sent to Bustle. “We are working with our waste management providers to find a sustainable solution, as we did with paper cups, and so the advice to put paper straws in general waste is therefore temporary. This waste from our restaurants does not go to landfill, but is used to generate energy.”

"I think it's great that people are becoming aware of the fact that our trash can end up in the ocean and harm wildlife. Plastic pollution is a huge and growing problem, and I'm really glad that people want to act and that companies are responding to changes people want to see. [...] However, straws are such a tiny fraction of the plastic waste that ends up in the ocean," Dr. Mary Rogalski, an assistant professor of biology and environmental studies at Bowdoin College, tells Bustle.

UN Environment reported that studies have shown cigarette butts, followed by bottle caps and bottles, are the top kinds of plastic waste found in oceans and landfills across the globe. In comparison, Bloomberg reported in 2018 that research has found that plastic straws account for only .03% of the eight million metric tons of plastic waste each year. However, according to National Geographic, this hasn’t stopped restaurants, cities, and even airlines from introducing plastic straw bans.

"I would suggest that it people wanted to act on this issue, instead of focusing on straws ,they might take a look at the waste they create in a given week," Dr. Rogalski says. "Recycling can be a great, but don't rely on that to reduce your plastic footprint. It's much better to reduce the amount you use. Particularly now, with the turmoil seen in U.S. recycling systems."

Single-use paper straws do not always degrade as fast as expected, despite being lauded as a much more eco-friendly option than plastic. According to the Biodegradable Products Institute, "more than 60 million tons of biodegradable materials — food scraps, wet, and soiled paper [aka, items like paper straws], leaves and grass — are still being sent to landfills where they will sit in an airless, dry environment to be mummified." Not to mention, as CNBC reported, Adam Merran, the CEO of PacknWood, a company that makes eco-friendly disposable tableware, said paper straws cost around ten times more than their plastic counterpart — ringing in at two and a half cents, while plastic straws only cost around half a cent.

“The focus on straws as opposed to other plastic products they use in high volume is a missed opportunity, while hurting disabled people who still need them.”

However, much of this information isn't new. Over the past year and a half, many advocates in the disability community have tirelessly spoken out time and again about the sustainability of plastic straw alternatives, against straw bans, and about the potentially life-threatening burden these initiatives place on folks in the disability community. As disabled folks have shared based on their experiences, there’s no universal alternative to plastic straws; metal straws pose injury risks, paper straws are a choking hazard, bamboo and corn husk straws are potentially unsafe for people with allergies, and other reusable straws aren't affordable, or may be difficult to clean for people with mobility issues. Plastic straws are not a luxury, but can be a life-saving tool for disabled people — providing independence, ease, and accessibility that many would not otherwise have.

Companies switching to paper straws without really assessing the long-term impact this switch will have on disabled people or the environment has come as little surprise to some folks in the disability community. Alice Wong, the director of the Disability Visibility Project, tells Bustle she finds it “ironic” that the paper straws that McDonald’s rolled out last summer as a sustainability effort will end up in the garbage. “As a disabled person, I try to reduce my plastic consumption, and [I] feel that straw bans by corporations [are] done for PR points for being 'socially conscious,'” she says. “The focus on straws as opposed to other plastic products they use in high volume is a missed opportunity, while hurting disabled people who still need them.” Too often, underrepresented communities are not given a seat at the table, even when a decision like the straw bans have the ability to dramatically impact people's lives.

The issue with incidents like these is not just that the supposedly environmentally friendly straws cannot be recycled, but that the burden the switch placed on the disability community was unnecessary. As s.e. Smith wrote for Bitch Media in July 2018, “the environmental movement must be willing to engage with the disability community about resource usage and sustainability.” Rather than launching swift marketing campaigns surrounding straw bans, more companies should be inclusive of the disability community in their conversations about how to move forward in eco-friendly and accessible ways. Listening to the disability community about plastic straw bans should have never been an option: it should be a priority.