Paper Straws: A Flimsy Solution One Year On

By Fleur Howe – Environmental Editor

The official UK ban on paper straws was implemented in October 2020 with companies beginning to switch in mid-2019. I’m sure we all remember the heartbreak of ordering an iced latte and for the first time you were met with a soggy bit of paper that disintegrated before you could finish it. The save the turtles campaign softened the blow, but still uproar was heard loud and clear, with some valid arguments questioning the accessibility of paper straws in cases of disability and within hospitals. But let’s be honest, we just don’t like them; they taste bad, they don’t last, but at least they’re recyclable, right?

The original goal of the ban was to initiate a change in the microplastics in the ocean, plastic straws, cotton buds, and plastic drink stirrers were at the forefront of this battle, due to their size they are often consumed by marine animals, which caught and eaten by humans, introduces micro-plastics into our food chain. This, following the 2015 charge on plastic bags in the UK, seems like a valiant effort to rectify the issue of microplastics in the ocean. That is until you remember that plastic straws only make up 0.025% of the ocean’s plastic.

Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) with a plastic bag, Moore Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Australia. The bag was removed by the photographer before the turtle had a chance to eat it. World Wildlife Foundation

The majority of ocean plastic is mismanaged waste, one of the biggest contributions to this being cigarette butts and filters. Although the dramatic increase in tax and huge increase in education around nicotine consumption over the last 20 years has dramatically decreased the smoking habits within the UK; it has been replaced by the more ‘health-conscious’ vape and e-cigarette culture, which is made of, you guessed it, plastic. Although, they are relatively long lasting, the recent surge of disposable vapes designed for a single night use swings us back in the cycle of single use plastic; despite claiming to be recyclable, let’s be real, who’s looking for a recycling bin on a night out.

Companies love to brag about the recyclable prospects of their products, a huge part of the campaign for paper straws was how they could be recycled. We’ve been sold 100 times over that paper products are recyclable, well they can be, but not when contaminated with food. Because of the size of the straws the majority of the time they cannot be process with larger paper or card products, whilst some ironically have a plastic or wax lining that makes them non-recyclable, and some are simply too thick. McDonald’s famously announced in August 2019 that due to customer complaint about the straws being too flimsy they made them thicker – and non-recyclable. These are only the issues faced when the straw actually reaches a recycling bin and although some paper can be biodegradable, if it ends in landfill it is prevented from decomposing.

On a broader scale 500 million plastic straws are still being used daily in the US, and whilst we can tell paper straws may not be the solution, the bottom line is simple: we are not doing enough. France implemented a ban on single use plastic this year including, straws, cups, cutlery, and takeaway boxes, by 2022 they have promised to ban single use packaging on the majority of fruit and vegetables. We can assume that these bans will be the next move for the UK but is that once again, too little too late?

A year on from the UK’s decision to ban paper straws and we are understandably underwhelmed by the impact. The irony of a paper straw, that is individually wrapped, placed in a single-use plastic cup, full of coffee from an industry in which only 35% of its contributors are fair-trade, from a chain company that produces 868,000 tons of waste yearly, exists to remind us of the feeble attempt made to tackle a problem bigger than 0.025% of ocean waste. The persistent complaints and unhappiness with paper straws epitomises a global unwillingness for change even in the smallest scale.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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