Disposable plastics are posing serious problems for our planet. Thanks to famous images of cluttered coastlines and suffering sea life, we’re all now understanding this fact – and it’s about time, too.
According to a 2017 study, Europeans use 36 billion disposable straws annually. In the US, that number rises to half a billion straws used every day. Given these enormous quantities, there should be no surprise that straws are ending up in places they shouldn’t be.
Thankfully, governments are now beginning to act. Across Europe, a single-use plastic ban will come into effect from 2021, targeting straws, cotton buds, and disposable cutlery, among other products. As a result, businesses need to find an alternative – an alternative that is acceptable to consumers while doing good for the environment.
Biodegradable straws are one of the alternatives available that fit these criteria. Why? As you will know, conventional plastics can take as long as 500 years to decompose in nature. Biodegradable materials such as paper, on the other hand, can break down in a matter of months – or even weeks. This makes them much less damaging for the ocean and the environment at large.
In this article, we want to share some of the real environmental benefits that biodegradable straws promise. As part of a larger strategy to reduce the use of disposable plastics, a switch to biodegradable straws can make a huge difference. And it’s not only about sea life. Rather, by using an alternative resource to fossil fuels, biodegradable straws enable a reduced ecological footprint across the whole of the product lifespan – from production to disposal.
What are Biodegradable Straws?
Firstly, though, let’s clarify what we mean by biodegradable. In an increasingly eco-conscious world, it’s a term we hear a lot. However, with more and more products carrying that label, it’s important that we know what we are talking about.
When materials biodegrade, they break down into ever smaller pieces once they’ve been thrown away. All materials do this, even plastics, which break down into what we call microplastics – i.e. plastic particles smaller than 5mm. As such, it’s not a very precise term. However, we call biodegradable those products that decompose into organic material with the help of bacteria – and without leaving toxins behind.
Biodegradable alternatives to plastic straws include products made from organic materials such as straw, pasta, bamboo, or paper. These break down without leaving a trace in a timescale sometimes as short as weeks.
However, businesses should always be aware of precisely what they are buying. Straws made of polylactic acid, or PLA, a type of organic plastic, are often branded as biodegradable. However, this isn’t strictly true. For these materials to degrade, special conditions and technologies are required. In the ocean, they have not been found to degrade at all over a year.
The Benefits of Biodegradable Straws
Disposable plastic straws are no longer a viable option. With research showing that consumers are more receptive to products that are legitimately sustainable, they don’t make business sense. Yet, given the environmental impact of plastic straws, they don’t make sense for the health of our planet either.
Biodegradable alternatives are the future. Yet, what positive impact do they actually have on the environment? Here are four ways in which biodegradable straws truly make a difference.
Biodegradable Straws Reduce the Threat of Ocean Trash
According to a recent study, two thirds of people across Europe and the Americas associate the word ‘plastic’ with ocean litter. Half believe plastic to be ‘harmful’. Plastic has a reputational problem – and it is one that is well deserved.
Researchers estimate that 8 million tons of the material are added to the ocean every year. While half of the plastic that we produce is single-use – including straws, cotton buds, and cigarette buds – these items make up 89% of ocean plastic. Crucially, this isn’t biodegradable – and studies are projecting that, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.
Switching to biodegradable straws won’t fix the problems of trash that is already in the ocean. However, it can help us to stop adding more. One study found plastic straws to be the 7th most commonly collected waste items on beaches worldwide. By turning to straws that break down naturally, we can prevent this blight on our landscapes and ecosystems – and keep our oceans a place for fish, not litter.
Biodegradable Straws Reduce Microplastics at Sea and on Land
A fact about ocean plastics that is commonly overlooked, however, is that only 1% is actually visible. 99%, then, is either too deep – or else too tiny – to be seen. We call these microplastics – and they have reached some of the most remote parts of the world.
In the ocean, these particles are ingested by sea life – and, as a result, they harm individual creatures and affect food chains more largely. Zooplankton, for example, often eat microplastics, preventing them from receiving sufficient nourishment from actual foods and hampering their ability to grow and reproduce. As a result, the fish, whales, and other animals that eat plankton don’t receive the food they need.
Biodegradable straws, on the other hand, disappear completely in a matter of months. This means that they may not enter the sea at all – and, if they do, they do not cause harm if they are ingested. This can help to ensure that everything in the food chain, including humans, have everything they need to eat.
Biodegradable Materials are Non-Toxic
Common knowledge tells us that plastics may take as long as a thousand years to disappear completely. Research suggests, however, that while this process is slow, plastics are nonetheless breaking down – and they leach chemicals into their environment as they do so.
Plastics in the ocean, for example, are thought to release bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical which is known to interfere with the hormones of animals if ingested. Similar chemicals are released by plastics that go to landfill, and local soil systems and rivers can suffer as a result.
When they are made from organic materials, such as paper, biodegradable straws do not release toxic substances. Rather, their chemical structures are easily digested by bacteria and will easily return to organic matter. When pollution from decomposing plastic can be up to 23 times as bad on land as it is in the ocean, the switch to biodegradable alternatives can make a huge difference.
Transitioning from Plastic to Biodegradable Paper Reduces Your Carbon Footprint
Plastic production is one of the most greenhouse-gas heavy industries in the world. It is notoriously energy intensive, first of all. However, plastics themselves are produced from fossil fuels – and they are known to release greenhouse gases such as methane and ethylene as they degrade.
In this way, the problem of plastic is not limited to their physical effect on sea life or their chemical impact on the earth. Rather, throughout their entire lifecycle – from their manufacture to their disposal – plastics are contributing to global warming. As a result, by adopting biodegradable straws, businesses are contributing to the battle against climate change too.
Rather than fossil fuels, biodegradable paper straws are made from an alternative resource that is more ecologically sound. That’s natural forests. As a result, biodegradable straws can be carbon neutral and avoid a dependence on non-renewable resources.
Finding an Alternative to Single-Use Plastics
Across the world, consumers and governments are waking up to the damage done by disposable plastics. From 2021, single-use straws, cotton buds, bags, and cutlery are to be restricted throughout Europe, while consumers are increasingly looking for sustainable alternatives.
However, these need to cater to all. One of the benefits of plastic straws is their convenience, allowing people with disabilities, for example, to drink in comfort. In a world affected by Covid-19, disposable items offer benefits in terms of hygiene too. Among all of the alternatives to plastic straws – from reusable metal and glass to disposable materials – biodegradable paper straws are the only option that provide concrete ecological benefits without sacrificing these important aspects of the user experience.
It is important to remember, though, that biodegradable straws alone won’t save the world. Only 1% of the ocean’s litter is made up of these plastic products. Yet, as part of a larger move away from single-use plastics, biodegradable straws can make a considerable difference to the health of the planet.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jos Veldwijk is Head of Marketing at Tembo Paper, part of the Tembo Group based in the Netherlands. He is an advocate for sustainability in business, and writes about how large brands and small enterprises can build an eco-friendly and environmentally conscious organisation.