The Last Straw: sustainable solutions to unnecessary waste
The humble plastic straw has found itself in the middle of one of the most important conversations facing us today: How do we save the planet?
On June 11, the House Commerce Committee will vote on plastic straw legislation authored by Rep. Mary Jo Daley (D-Montgomery). Daley's legislation —House Bill 1176 — seeks to prohibit establishments from offering single-use plastic straws unless a customer specifically requests one. Her proposal seeks to address the issue of single-use plastic waste without completely banning the bendable straws that many people with disabilities rely on.
It’s easy to sip on a refreshing drink and then toss the plastic straw in the trash. Unfortunately, it’s even easier for people to litter. Doing easy things has gotten us into trouble with post-consumer waste and climate change.
Experts estimate that it takes more than 100 years for a plastic straw to decompose.
It’s difficult to pinpoint statistics on exactly how many plastic straws are used in the United States every day. A commonly cited number of 500 million per day originally entered the media stream years ago in association with then-9-year-old Milo Cress, who founded Be Straw Free, an organization aimed at persuading restaurants to reduce plastic straw use. Experts put the number at a couple hundred million less than that. No matter the exact figure, there are millions of plastic straws being thrown away every day, and plastic straws are routinely found in the ocean or along beaches.
A plastic straw is a small thing. Small enough that some people laugh off the plastic straw bans imposed in cities across the country. But reducing waste begins with small steps, which could mean trying one of the many eco-friendly alternatives to plastic straws — such as paper straws, straws made from other biodegradable material and reusable straws made from bamboo or stainless steel — or forgoing straws altogether.
In Lancaster County, plastic straws must be placed in the trash. (Recent recycling changes are focusing on the big four: metal food and beverage containers, plastic bottles and jugs that have a neck, corrugated cardboard and glass bottles and jars.)
“Locally, people should understand that the marine litter issue has more to do with poor waste management practices in other countries,” says Kathryn Sandoe, chief commercial officer at Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority. “People living in countries without a waste management system will resort to dumping their trash in the streets, dry river beds, which are then carried into waterways and eventually into the ocean.”
Still Sandoe says the authority encourages people “if possible, to not use plastic straws or try the reusable kind instead. ... Once someone is done with their plastic straw, it should be placed in the trash. In Lancaster County, LCSWMA will combust the trash and make electricity from it. However, reducing our reliance upon single-use plastics is an important issue — locally, nationally and and globally. People in Lancaster County can help make a difference by being mindful consumers.”
There are companies addressing the plastic straw problem, and local restaurants and businesses are embracing eco-friendly solutions and raising awareness of alternatives to plastic straws.
The Rijuice stand at Central Market offers Hay Straws — a drinking straw made from wheat stems produced by a company based in San Francisco. Initially, Rijuice tried offering paper straws but were dissatisfied with the product and eventually found Hay Straws.
“They even work in coffee,” says Chris Tamburro, sales associate with the local cold-pressed juice company.
“Some people are immediately like, ‘That’s a good idea.’ Some think they’re silly and they’re something that started because of a viral sea turtle video. But that video was good for awareness.” Tamburro says.
The video Tamburro is referring to shows a team of scientists working to remove what they think is a worm from a sea turtle’s nostril. The woman filming is infuriated when they discover it’s a plastic straw. (“Straws are useless!” she cries.) It’s obvious the turtle is in pain, and it can be painful to watch.
“It’s not about straws specifically, but the amount of plastic waste we create,” Tamburro says. “It’s one small thing, but that’s the easiest way that anybody can help with an environmental issue — regardless of any political affiliation.”