You walk into a restaurant and sit down at the table.
The server comes up to you, pours a glass of water and lays a straw down. You take the straw out of its wrapper and come to the unfortunate revelation that it is made out of paper. The paper straw is no one’s first choice but we need to save the sea turtles, right? Paper straws are way better for the environment… right?
Turns out, paper straws might not be as eco-friendly as you might think.
Straws don’t just magically appear on our tables or in our drinks. There is a lot that goes into the creation of a single straw. Materials need to be harvested, refined, and transported. Processes require energy, chemicals, and workers. So, let’s see how our straws stack up.
Paper straws, as the name suggests, are made out of paper. Paper comes from trees, but we need to chop them down first to make paper. The transporting of lumber requires large diesel trucks to haul the logs to the paper processing plant. There the logs are transformed into craft paper that can be shipped off to a straw production company. Finally, the paper is cut and glued together, and you have a finished straw. This process requires a surprising amount of energy. Each paper straw made requires about 96 kilojoules of energy and emits 4.1 grams of carbon pollutants. However, these numbers mean nothing without something to compare them to.
The process of making plastic straws is no better than that of their paper counterpart. Instead of starting in a forest, this time we begin our journey in an oil field. While the process of turning oil into plastic is far more damaging to the environment, the distance the raw materials need to travel is significantly shorter, cutting out a large amount of transportation related pollutants. With all this in mind, what are the numbers? Each plastic straw produced will need around 39 kilojoules of energy and output 1.5 grams of carbon emissions.
You read that right, paper straws produce almost three times the amount of carbon dioxide. (In past posts, we've shared sources ((2020)) that say it is more like 5.4 times as much.)
At double the energy usage and nearly 3X ~ 5X the emissions, paper straws seem to be a far worse choice when it comes to eco-friendly straws. However, there is another trait to consider: biodegradability.
Plastic is as bad as it gets when we talk about waste decomposing. It floats around our oceans and sits in landfills practically forever, but what about paper straws?
While most paper straw producers advertise their products as “biodegradable”, this is only partially true. The materials that most paper straws are made out of will decompose under very specific conditions, but all bets are off once the straw makes it to a landfill. If a paper straw is mixed in with other trash and shipped to a landfill, the protective chemical treatment needed to maintain the quality of the straw results in emissions from disposal being greater than that of plastic.
Do we have our answer? Are plastic straws better for the environment than paper straws? Is there anything paper straws are better at? Well, yes. The very thing so many of us complain about when using a paper straw. They disintegrate in water. This means that if a paper straw were to end up in an ocean, it would turn into mushy pulp instead of sticking out of a sea turtle's nose.
So, I pose a question to you, dear reader:
If people refuse to change, and our solution to a problem is worse than the problem itself, what can we do?
*The article was based on a study done by Karuna Rana, a talented, agile and young social entrepreneur who has several accomplishments in various fields. Nevertheless, we are able only partially agree with her conclusions stemming from the same bias as just Ms. Rana, since we are also convinced that we have come up with the best solution in the aftermath of the era of single use plastic straws.
Top photo originals by Noémi Macavei-Katócz, Charlotte May, and Tingey Injury Law Firm