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The responsible disposal of single-use drinking straws

Ask the Expert: Jo Gilroy (Head of Sustainability).

Drinking straws are the latest disposable (single-use) foodservice product to hit the headlines, we asked our Sustainability expert ‘If we want to reduce their negative impact on the environment should we stop using them, switch to another material type – or something else?’

And here’s what she told us…

Last week disposable straws hit the headlines big time, but why?  Here’s a few contributing reasons:

  • A disturbing video (made in 2015) of a plastic straw being removed from a turtle’s nose, that recently went viral on social media (it’s estimated more than 12 million people have seen it).
  • Rules introduced two years ago forcing customers to pay a 5p charge for plastic bags, which drastically reduced the number of bags being used.
  • A high-profile campaign called ‘Refuse the Straw’, which started in the US and is backed by designer Vivienne Westwood – this is one of many similar initiatives.
  • The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (dedicated to pushing for a circular economy), in a joint venture with The Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit, launched a $2 million design competition to keep plastics out of the ocean (including straws).
  • The Government ban on ‘rinse-off’ plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products, following a public consultation.
  • Single-use paper cups under scrutiny after Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launches the ‘wake up and smell the waste’ campaign, which highlighted that most of the 2.5 billion paper cups being thrown away in the UK each year are not being recycled – although many consumers falsely believed they were.
Sustainability Expert - Jo Gilroy Twitter - @JoannaGilroy
Sustainability Expert – Jo Gilroy Twitter – @JoannaGilroy

This list is by no means exhaustive – just 14 per cent of plastic packaging is currently recycled, according to a 2016 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – single-use plastics are a seriously hot topic.

What’s interesting about the points above though, is that each one singles-out one material type or product, within a specific industry (like foodservice) and puts it under a microscope for public scrutiny.

So, the spotlight is now on straws – and for good reason.

Straws are among the most common plastic items found on UK beaches – they make up over 60 per cent of all the litter found there. Don’t let their ‘smallness’ mislead you, the effect they have on the environment is significant and lasting. Like all plastics, straws don’t fully break down.  Instead they fragment into smaller and smaller pieces which cause environmental damage, endangering wildlife and entering our food chain.

When plastic straws are littered (rather than being disposed of in a bin), they enter waterways and oceans, and it’s here where they do their most damage.  It is estimated that 8 million tonnes of waste end up in the world’s oceans each year.  Much of this waste material is plastic which marine species often mistake for food as it fragments into bite sized pieces. Sky’s Ocean Rescue programme highlighted how a bowl of muscles can contain as much as 14 pieces of micro-plastic.

It’s no wonder then that pub chains like JD Wetherspoon and All Bar One have stopped automatically putting plastic straws in drinks. Both pub chains propose the introduction of a ‘compostable’ straw alternative – but is that the right approach and what are the alternatives?

Simply, we can stop providing a straw in a drink, unless the customer specifically asks for one.  And that’s mostly fine, if the drink is being served at a bar for consumption on-site.

It does become a bit trickier for food on the go however. It’s hard to imagine how you’d drink a smoothie, in a tumbler with a domed lid, without the aid of a straw.

The introduction of controlled-use dispensers, like the counter-top napkin dispensers you see in quick-service-restaurants, can reduce the frequency and quantity of straws being used – the onus is on the customer to retrieve one if they really want one, rather than just being given one automatically.

But what of these compostable alternatives we keep hearing about? Well, the thing about compostable straws (often made from PLA), is that just like plastic straws (often made from PP or PET), if they are not disposed of properly, then there’s still a significant risk to the environment. A PLA straw placed in general waste, or even worse littered on the street – is still an environmental problem. Any benefits derived from being made from renewable materials are lost at point of disposal.

Which leads me neatly to my main point, which is this: changing the material type of a straw to plastic, PLA or paper will not address the real problem – we must give full and proper consideration to how we keep it off the streets as litter, and in the correct bin. Plastic or PLA require segregation at point of disposal – so that they get sent to the correct recycling facility, whether that is a commercial composting facility or a materials recycling facility (MRF).

In 2017, the Square Mile Challenge, led by Simply Cups and environmental charity Hubbub, and supported by businesses across the whole supply chain, introduced a scheme to boost disposable paper hot cup recycling in the City of London. To date, the scheme has collected over cups for recycling – demonstrating that if clearly signposted to do so, consumers will segregate their litter when they are finished with it.  This is a promising message indeed – and one that underlines the importance of education, awareness, and individual responsibility.

In summary, the ease with which we use a straw, and then dispose of it, underlines a mindlessness that is a big problem. Whatever the straw is made of, the crucial factor is how we dispose of it. To drive this message home requires collaboration across the whole supply chain – from manufacturer and distributor – to retailer and waste management provider. It must be the key focus of these collaborators, ourselves included, to de-mystify and to educate, to motivate consumers not to litter, and to establish the much-needed infrastructure for the responsible disposal of single-use foodservice products.

 

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