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The Humble Drinking Straw: An Ethical Dilemma

Environmental Considerations of Plastic Straws and Eco Friendly Alternatives

The following is a guest post by Jane Sandwood that deals with the important issue of whether plastic straws are better than other forms and the fact that alternatives raise some environmental concerns.

2020 marks that year Starbucks set as its target to ban all disposable plastic straws from its branches. The ethics of drinking straws is a hotly debated topic, with environmental concerns on the one side and accessibility concerns on the other. Environmental groups have been campaigning to do away with plastic straws altogether, but the alternatives often present environmental concerns too, and they pose a problem for those with disabilities. It’s clear that companies have a responsibility to act here, but the question remains as to what the most ethical course of action is.

The problem with plastic straws

Plastic straws are a significant environmental problem because of their weight: they’re too light to be sorted at recycling facilities and end up either in landfill or harming the recyclability of other items. Partly due to this, and partly due to individual negligence, they are among the most-collected items at coastal cleanups. They pose a significant threat to marine life, and there is evidence of seals choking and sea turtles dying as a result of their presence in the ocean. Eight million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and drinking straws are certainly a part of the problem.

A similar problem is seen with plastic shopping bags, which first came into circulation in the 1960s. These are made up of different types of plastics and have a tendency to clog machines, meaning they’re often not accepted by recycling centers. As a result, they contribute significantly to the littering problem, and many end up in rivers and oceans.

The alternatives 

On the surface, this seems like a fairly easy issue to navigate: why do drinking straws or shopping bags need to be plastic? For some people, access to drinking straws is essential due to a disability, but the eco-friendly alternatives fall short. Speaking to USA Today, Lawrence Carter-Long, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund Communications Director, said that reusable drinking straws simply don’t work as well for those with disabilities. Straws made from paper or pasta can present a choking hazard, and there is an injury risk with straws made from glass, metal, bamboo and acrylic. Many of the alternatives are not as positionable as plastic straws, and some are not compatible with high temperature foods and drinks. Straw

Some of the alternatives also raise further environmental concerns. Paper straws rely on large quantities of raw materials, and are still single-use, despite being biodegradable. Stainless steel, meanwhile, requires a lot of energy and resources to produce. On the whole, though, a reusable straw, regardless of the carbon footprint involved in its production, has a net-positive impact if it is used frequently, and it can significantly reduce the reliance on single use items.

Answering the plastic bag dilemma might seem more straightforward, but in fact, there are complications here too. Until they reach the end of their life, they are clearly a more ethical alternative, but once they are no longer usable, they must be disposed of, and this presents its own problem. Many reusable shopping bags are made from polypropylene, polyester or nylon, all of which are difficult to dispose of: few recycling facilities are equipped to deal with them. Unless washed frequently, they can also present a bacteria problem. However, by and large, there is less ethical debate around them than there is around drinking straws.

So what’s the answer?

For the individual consumer, the answer is simply not to use a straw unless a disability necessitates it. For those who do need to use a straw, a reusable one is the most environmentally friendly option, but it’s important to be aware that not all of the alternatives are safe or practical for all people. For companies like Starbucks, the answer is a little more complex. Certainly, the habit of bars to automatically serve cocktails with a straw could easily be stopped, but the hospitality industry will need to continue to provide accessibility options for those who need them.

One option would be to keep a small supply of reusable straws in a range of materials behind the bar, offering them only to those who need them and running them through the dishwasher after use. Otherwise, clients could be encouraged to bring their own straw when necessary, but this presents another ethical dilemma: is it fair to marginalize people with disabilities even further by placing the responsibility on them?

As far as shopping bags go, plastic ones are rarely the better answer. While there are some disadvantages, they do not present the same ethical dilemma as drinking straws, and they do not exclude one group of society. The bulk of the debate around drinking straws exists not because of the materials used in alternatives, but because for some people, they make the world a more accessible place.

The ethical dilemma around the drinking straw continues to be a topic of debate. Environmental awareness is growing throughout society, but this must not be at the expense of inclusivity. There is no one clear answer to the problem, but one thing’s for certain: both the environment and the people who live within it should be a vital consideration.           

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Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 18, 2020. You can sign up for our newsletter and learn more about Dr. Mintz’s activities at: Follow him on Facebook at: