Everyone knows single-use plastics harm the environment. We still use them every day in the form of plastic straws, lids, water bottles, plastic stirrers, and K-Cups for your Keurig coffee machine. That’s why many US cities, and the entire state of California, have passed some form of legislation banning or reducing the use of plastic straws. We’re a few years into the efforts at this point, and paper straws are commonplace. So we should be able to see some results, right?
Unfortunately, bans on plastic drinking straws don’t do much to affect our environment, and the use of paper straws doesn’t make a huge impact, either. In fact, manufacturing paper straws comes with energy use and pollution, too.
But that doesn’t mean we should stop seeking a solution. When it comes to environmental science (or any science), a failure doesn’t need to be an outcome. As Thomas Edison once said, “I haven’t failed 10,000 times. I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
So today, we’ll look at how paper straws affect our environment positively and negatively — and think about ways consumers and entrepreneurs can make an impact.
Ye Olde Plastic Straws and Maritime Pollution
It’s been nearly a year since we wrote about plastic straws and their effect on the oceans. Refreshing some statistics, we know:
- Plastic straws and coffee stirrers make up about 5% of the total trash picked up from California beaches yearly.
- Cigarette butts are the most prevalent form of trash picked up from US shores.
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says marine debris is a huge problem in the oceans and our Great Lakes, with eight billion tons of trash dumped every year.
Plastic straws were a tiny fraction of this waste, as little as 0.025% of it. But if you do that math, that’s still 400,000 lbs of plastic straws hitting our seas every year.
More recent statistics are difficult to find. For now, we’ll continue to blame the lack of published research regarding plastic straw pollution on COVID-19. But critical thinkers realize that a minor change in 0.025% of the total tonnage will be challenging to qualify. Even if we stopped using plastic straws entirely, the impact on overall maritime pollution would be statistically minimal.
But the overall impact isn’t just about plastic straw use. It’s about consumer awareness, changing behaviors, and new technology. We’ll talk more about that shortly.
Paper Straw Manufacturing Concerns: Emissions, Climate Change, and Frank Disgust
While paper straws are considered biodegradable — specifically, they will decay in a natural way that is not harmful to the environment within a matter of years — they have a considerable environmental impact. And you might find them a bit disgusting.
Let’s Start With Disgusting
The standard paper straws with which we’re now familiar are composed of three plies of paper bonded with water-based adhesive. In the US, the adhesives must be food-grade.
Cool story. But here’s the problem. While no paper straw manufacturer advertises that they use adhesives made from animal byproducts, many food-grade adhesives approved for paper and wood come from slaughterhouse waste. Now, from a “use every part of the animal” perspective, this is great. There’s no reason to dispose of usable bio-matter, especially when living creatures die to feed our families.
But there is a granola-eating, pan-fluting, Birkenstocking [not a word, but should be] demographic that would be utterly disgusted by the notion that their planet-saving paper straws are held together by boiled feathers and feet. Sorry if that sounds offensive, but the point must be made. Food-safe adhesives and gels are often byproducts of the Big Meat industry, and many people find that disturbing.
Then there are manufacturing concerns and emissions.
Paper Straws Are Not Climate Friendly
A lot goes into paper straw manufacturing. First, the bulk raw material must be harvested. We’re talking about trees and deforestation.
Deforestation and Climate Concerns
Trees absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the air. Any third-grader knows that much. Trees also store carbon in their trunks and roots. When trees are cut down, that carbon may be released into the environment as CO2. The current consensus among scientists is that tropical deforestation is causing just under 10% of global warming pollution. (We might argue that all living things on earth are carbon-based and that decay is a natural process, but we digress.)
What We Know
No resource quantifies the number of trees explicitly harvested for paper straws nor the number of straws that could come from a single tree. We know the industry is growing by leaps and bounds as consumers try to make good choices and governments try to take meaningful steps to avoid climate change.
Overall, we know that logging, on a global scale, causes roughly 20% of our greenhouse gas emissions. And we know deforestation leads to significant temperature increases directly.
- Global Forest Resources Assessments tell us that 80,000 to 160,000 trees are harvested globally every day for paper.
- Logging is a dangerous and environmentally dirty process.
- Sources suggest that 13 tons of carbon emissions enter the atmosphere for every ton of lumber harvested.
Then we need to consider the environmental cost of lumber transportation. The total amount of carbon emissions related to logging in the US remains uncounted. But we know diesel fuel gets involved, and the numbers must be significant.
Next, we have to process the trees into pulp and press the pulp into paper. All in all, a paper straw requires triple the energy to create compared to a plastic straw, according to Strawlific.com.
Here’s the bottom line. The minimal amount of reduced maritime pollution created by quitting plastic straws does not justify the energy use and emissions of paper straws.
But It’s Not All Bad News
To paraphrase Thomas Edison, a failure can be the learning moment that leads to accomplishment, and many shortcomings become much progress made.
So while the paper straw issue is quickly becoming a fiasco, we can learn two significant points here.
First, consumer awareness and accountability are invaluable. If you’re deeply concerned about the impact of straws, you can choose not to use them.
Then we can put more thought into other single-use plastic items, find ways to reuse them, and dispose of them correctly. We can put more pressure on other nations, particularly in Asia, to limit their use of single-use plastics and to be better neighbors when it comes to pollution.
Secondly, we can focus on better technology. In the case of straws, we can look into more renewable sources for paper, like hemp. Alternatively, we can try metal straws. We’re not suggesting these alternatives have zero cost to the environment. Every option will come with a set of environmental challenges to weigh. But every new straw we devise could also offer more solutions for other single-use plastics.
The Straw Issue Is Only the Beginning
The straw issue is a relatively small one. We shouldn’t place so much granular focus there. It’s like that old saying, “We can’t see the forest for the trees.” There is so much more maritime pollution to think about and so many other behaviors that affect climate change we can address.
Let’s try to see the whole forest for a moment.
The Biggest Tree: Chinese Manufacturing Is Responsible for 81% of Our Maritime Plastics Pollution
We’re not here to point fingers like an angry neighbor. But when it comes to our oceans and our atmosphere, China is the worst polluter by far. The problem is that the United Nations (UN) and World Bank consider China a developing nation. That means Chinese manufacturers are still exploring their industrial revolution and don’t have to meet the same standards regarding pollution as developed nations.
There are no criteria that the UN and World Bank use to define a developing nation. So, even though the population is well-fed, educated, has access to public transportation and infrastructure, and lives better than most Western nations, Chinese plants are allowed to pollute indiscriminately.
China Releases More Emissions Than Any Other Nation
The Chinese government gives us lip service about their efforts to control pollution and emissions, even going so far as to publish five and ten-year plans from time to time. But in 2020, China built three times more coal-powered plants than the rest of the world combined.
We don’t want to sound defeatist. But if everyone on the planet stopped using straws completely, we’d still only diminish ocean plastics pollution by 0.025%.
If we could get China to cut their plastics pollution by a reasonable amount, say 10%, that would be 4,000 times more effective than all these drinking straw games.
So let’s stop looking at the individual trees and try to see the entire forest. Paper straws aren’t the answer to maritime pollution, and they cause more harm than good when we consider emissions and climate change. Political pressure from organizations like the UN would be far more effective.
Also, let’s continue to explore ways to reduce plastics pollution and air pollution. We might fail a thousand times, but it’s always worth the effort.
Related Reading & Resources:
Urthpact.com: Plastic Bans in the US: Where They Are and How to Comply With Them
Youtube.com: ABC 15 Arizona: How Is a Paper Straw Made?
Strawlific.com: Paper vs. Plastic: The (Brief) Surprising Truth About Paper Straws
Cleanwateraction.org: Paper or Plastic? Why the Answer Should be “Neither”