Plastic straws are becoming increasingly scarce in cafes and bars. Even McDonald’s has committed to phasing out plastic straws across Australia by 2020. For many, this is a sign that big business is finally hearing the rallying cry against single-use plastics. But for some people with disabilities, drinking straws are the only way to drink liquids without assistance. So where should you sit on this debate? Are plastic drinking straws really that bad? And what are the alternatives?

How bad are straws really?
It has been estimated that Australians use and throw away 10 million plastic drinking straws every day. The origins of this number are contentious, but an ABC investigation found that rather than overstating the case, the actual figure may be much higher. Straws are particularly harmful to turtles and other wildlife because of their shape and strength, and videos online of conservationists removing plastic drinking straws from the nostrils of turtles have been shocking to many.

As with all plastics, one of the major environmental impacts of plastic drinking straws comes from microplastics. As straws and other plastic products degrade, they break down into smaller and smaller particles, finally known as microplastics once they reach about the size of a sesame seed. These microplastics remain suspended in the oceans until they are consumed by fish and other sea creatures. Until recently it had only been theorised that these microplastics then worked their way up the food chain to humans, but in 2018 microplastics were discovered in humans for the first time. The European study found on average 20 microplastic particles for every 10g of faecal sample, and up to nine different types of plastic in some samples. The study also theorised that microscopic particles may be crossing over into the bloodstream, so the actual amount of plastic in people’s bodies may be much higher than detected in these tests.

What about people with disabilities?
Even if you agree that plastic drinking straws may be problematic in large quantities, is it fair that people with disabilities who require a straw to consume liquids may not be able to have a drink in public? The situation may not be so dire. In most cases businesses are either replacing plastic drinking straws with environmentally friendly alternatives, such as reusable straws or biodegradable straws. In cases where establishments have removed straws altogether, most have kept a stash behind the counter specifically for people who require a straw to drink – you may need to request a straw when you order in these cases, but you should still be able to get one.

Are there alternatives?
There are always alternatives, particularly if you don’t require a bendy plastic straw. In this case, if you require a drinking straw the alternative is to BYO an environmentally friendly option. These include straws made from:

  • Stainless steel
  • Silicone
  • Bamboo
  • Paper
  • Straw (who’d have thought?)

By having your own stash of biodegradable or reusable straws, you can ensure that you will have access to a straw when going out, while also doing your bit for the environment.

You can find out more about straw alternatives at http://www.laststraw.com.au/, and read more about the possible effects of microplastics found in humans at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/from-fish-to-humans-a-microplastic-invasion-may-be-taking-a-toll/

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