How would you feel if you were handed a plastic fork and knife the next time you visited your favorite sit-down restaurant? Not good, I would wager. It feels wrong as plastic silverware is cheap, low quality, and inappropriate for a nicer dining situation. Yet we don’t even question a plastic straw.
According to NPR, the average American uses roughly 584 disposable straws yearly. This number is staggering when you consider that most people don’t use single-use straws at home. So, how do we get this number down, and would it be beneficial for any restaurant that provides metal silverware to also provide reusable straws?
To try and answer this, we need to take a closer look at the different types of reusable straws.
Metal straws are the first thing that many people think of when they hear “reusable straw.” Maybe you bought one and brought it with you whenever you go out to eat, or perhaps you have a few lying around that came with a nice travel mug. Either way, metal straws are a good alternative to the hundreds of single-use straws that get tossed out each year.
However, they are not perfect. Creating a stainless-steel straw is a difficult task that requires intense and environmentally damaging processes. Every step of the way, from mining the iron ore, to transporting the raw metal, then into the foundry for refinement, shaping, and cutting, requires an enormous amount of energy and outputs a significant quantity of carbon emissions.
Overall, creating one metal straw emits over 100 times the amount of harmful CO2 that a single plastic straw will. This may seem extreme, but we’re not going to use a metal straw once and throw it out. If you use a metal straw instead of a disposable straw for at least half a year, then metal is the more sustainable option.
“What if I don’t end up using the same straw 300 times,” I hear you ask.
There are, of course, other reusable options that can be better for the environment and less resource-intensive. Glass straws are a popular reusable alternative. While glass straws have a similar forging process to metal straws, the energy required to turn the unrefined glass into straws is much less. This results in glass straws producing three times less CO2 than their metal counterparts. Even better, it would seem, are bamboo straws. Since reusable bamboo straws forgo the forging process altogether, their carbon footprint is even lower at six times less than metal.
However, these investments in sustainability come with drawbacks.
All three options are better than single-use straws such as paper or plastic, provided that they are reused. If the bamboo straw is discarded before it can be used 15 times, you were probably better off using plastic.
However, this argument is thrown out when it comes to restaurants. Any restaurant that utilizes metal silverware could feasibly transition their disposable straws to metal or glass and guarantee enough uses to ensure they are more sustainable than plastic.
At the end of the day, even the best reusable straw will eventually need to be replaced. Since the straw is designed to last, it will hold up even after being discarded. Eventually, both disposable and reusable straws will end up in a landfill.
We seem to be so focused on fixing the issue right now that we haven’t even acknowledged the future repercussions. So, how do we improve our current situation while preparing for future challenges?