Reducing the use of plastic straws and the issues of some alternatives

By Natalie Banks - Managing Director, Azraq

As part of its mission to phase out plastic straws throughout the United Arab Emirates due to the impacts on the marine environment and wildlife, local marine conservation organisation, Azraq launched a #stopsucking initiative with Freedom Pizza in February 2018. Since then, they have come across countless reasons why people feel that they cannot give up the plastic straw.

Most of the claims are futile; we must remember that plastic only became popular in the 1950’s and prior to that people we able to drink without a plastic straw just fine.

So let’s examine some the top three reasons:

It’s safer for my teeth:  We hear this from people concerned about stains from coffee or sugar from soda drinks. If this is your belief, it is easy to swap to a glass, stainless steel, bamboo or paper straw. But let’s examine it further.

 When you drink from a straw, you put the tip of it between your lips and in front of the teeth, so the damaging effects of sugary sodas will still harm your teeth. For those people who hold the straw between their teeth, the back of the teeth are still exposed.

Keep in mind that the tongue is in constant contact with the teeth, so if any soda or coffee touches your tongue, it will also get on your teeth. If you’ve tasted the drink, the teeth have been exposed.

Therefore, the only way to protect your teeth using the straw method would be to place the tip of the straw at the back of the mouth behind the teeth and tongue so the liquid goes straight from cup to back of the throat without touching the teeth. Of course, at this point, it’s more like taking a shot than enjoying a juice or coffee, and defeats the whole purpose of drinking it!

The best thing to do after enjoying a sugary or staining drink is to chase it with a glass of water, or even better, brush your teeth! Either one neutralizes the acids and minimizes the staining and damage to the teeth.

It’s more sanitary to sip from a straw: This reason is the most common excuse we hear and I would like to spend some time examining this. Let’s say your beverage comes in a glass with a straw. The reason you use the straw is because you believe it is more sanitary. Are you concerned with the dishwashers these days? The liquid beverage itself is in contact with the “unsanitary” glass but that is okay because you are more concerned about the rim of the glass? Meanwhile, later that night, I encounter you at the restaurant sipping on wine and beer from a glass with no straw in sight. Why is this? Is it because it’s alcohol and therefore the glass amazingly appears more sanitary, or do you have a different persona outside of restaurants and bars? Or is it simply habit?

It saves me from reapplying my lipstick. It saves the interior of my car. It is habit.

 Again, it is easy to form a new habit and swap to a glass, stainless steel, bamboo or paper straws. That way you can save the amount of waste being diverted to landfill or ending up in our oceans and sadly killing marine life.

But there is a very real reason why we need to consider something other than glass, stainless steel, bamboo or plastic straws and that is accessibility for the disabled or people with determination; those with needs to drink soup or hot beverages above 40 degrees Celsius, those that require hand-free drinking and those that have difficulty controlling their bite.

 Most of the alternatives for plastic straws are not suitable for consumption of liquids over 40 degrees Celsius. An average coffee for example is served at 70 degrees Celsius. In saying this however, when you use plastic straws for hot beverages like tea, cocoa, and coffee, toxins can leach from the plastic and enter your body, often disrupting hormones and other negative side effects. So for this particular concern, a bamboo straw would be more suitable, or if flexibility is also needed, enter the PLA straw. 

Polylactic acid or polylactide (PLA) is a biodegradable plastic made from renewable resources such as cornstarch and sugar canes. Corn plastic products look and feel just like regular plastic, but they are marketed as being 100% biodegradable and 100% compostable. The problem is that in order for PLA to biodegrade or to become compostable, you need the right elements; specifically oxygen, a temperature of 140+ degrees and a cocktail of organic substrate that enables the material to be broken down over six months. Collectively, these elements are absent in any scenario outside of industrial composting facilities.  Unfortunately the United Arab Emirates currently doesn’t have industrial composting facilities capable of managing PLA and therefore this substitute material, while more sustainable than regular plastic made from petroleum, will end up in oceans and landfill alongside for a very long time. What is worse is that if PLA products are mixed with conventional recyclable plastic it can contaminate the batch, reducing even further the low percentage of plastic being recycled.

We desperately need new recycling infrastructure and the introduction of a new recycling culture in conjunction with the reduction of single-use plastic use to solve this issue. Even with years of focus and the separation of waste, only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled.  Most of the 5.73 billion metric tons of plastic waste that hasn’t been recycled has entered our oceans, breaking up into microplastics, being consumed by marine animals, which eventually die from the lack of nutrients they are receiving or land up on our plates.

So perhaps for now, while we await the necessary cultural, governmental and industrial changes to catch up to the issue of single-use plastic pollution, the answer for now regarding straws at least, is for cafes, bars and restaurants to only provide straws when people ask for them and to have available a range of paper or bamboo straws and a small amount of PLA or regular plastic straws for the disabled. If this is done while individuals focussed on the refusal, reduction and reuse of plastic straws and industry focuses on recycling infrastructure, then we can really start making an impact.

But for those that do not suffer from a disability, here is something to contemplate; drinking through a straw causes gas. It also causes wrinkles around the mouth; the puckering you do to sip from a straw emulates what smokers do when they take a drag on a cigarette, giving you unsightly wrinkles around the upper lip.

It’s food for thought isn’t it? #Stopsucking if you can. Not only will the marine environment thank you for it, but your intestines and skin around the mouth will do also.