UK search for ‘straw-ternatives’ after plastic straw ban for 2020

Materials World magazine
,
1 Jul 2019

The UK will be banning its use of plastic straws by 2020, sparking debate on potential alternatives and their viability for replacing single-use straws. Shardell Joseph investigates.

The UK government has launched its plan to ban the sale and distribution of plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds by 2020, in order to protect rivers and seas from waste. The ban was initiated as part of the UK’s 25-year Environmental Plan unveiled by the government in January 2018, running parallel with the Europe-wide strategy on plastic waste, which was adopted at the same time.

The public perspective

According to YouGov, the public were overwhelmingly supportive of limiting problematic plastics, with 77% in favour of eradicating plastic straws. The ban, however, has not come without concerns.

One of the main issues raised was regarding medical care and accessibility. According to Disability Rights UK, banning plastic straws would impact disabled people, as many with manual dexterity impairments use plastic straws to drink safely and independently. Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), on the other hand, has welcomed the decision due to the environmental impacts, but believes that action against single-use plastic is not enough.

A more general consensus, however, is that the ban is a positive step towards reaching global environmental goals, and most are welcoming of novel materials. The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) has been urging its members – accounting for approximately 20,000 UK pubs – to end the use of plastic straws prior to the announcement, and seek eco-friendly materials.

‘Ministers are doing the sensible thing by looking into single-use plastic items that can be replaced with alternatives we can’t simply do without,’ said Greenpeace UK Political Adviser, Sam Chetan Welsh, adding that ‘this should be just the start’.

Straw-ternatives

Necessity or not, there is still a huge incentive to introduce eco-friendly options to the UK straw market. So far, there are five main material alternatives.

The most common, already widely adopted by many establishments across the UK, is paper. A paper straw’s biodegradable properties means it would only take up to three days for the straw to break down if released into the ocean. In addition, paper straws have the capacity to decompose into the earth in under six weeks, unlike plastic straws, which could last up to 200 years in a landfill.

However, paper straws are considered to be less durable and cost-effective than plastic. Paper can be up to four more times expensive, and its porous nature means it quickly absorbs liquid, which can leave straws mushy with a taste of fibres in the drink.

BBPA argued, however, that it could be possible to overcome the increase in price by only offering straws on request. The benefits of paper have also proven to outweigh the disadvantages, and paper straws are likely to be adopted nationwide when plastic is banned. With major companies such as JD Wetherspoon transitioning to paper, there is likely to be large-scale developments prompted to improve the quality and practicality of the material.

Made of stainless-steel, aluminium, or even titanium, metal straws have become a popular, durable and reusable solution. Metal straws are easy to clean, and their reusability may reduce the carbon footprint of their manufacture, as the demand for new straws will decrease.

They have received some criticism, however, for having a metallic taste, clanking against teeth, and conducting heat from a hot drink. Metal straws are also more expensive than plastic, but their ability to be re-used could somewhat offset the cost difference.

The benefits of metal straws are likely to be appealing for personal use, or high-end establishments such as cocktail bars, but for large businesses and restaurants, mass adoption is unlikely, due to higher costs. Although they are reusable, they present the problem of becoming lost or stolen, requiring replacement.

100% biodegradable, wheat straws are trendy alternative that are fully sustainable and renewable. They may not reach the level of plastic, but the material is becoming popular due to having an extremely low CO2 footprint, and being compostable at home. While there are many benefits, one of the main concerns is the potential threat of wheat allergens, which the Food Standards Agency states it will monitor along with all potential risks posed by such substitutions.

Making the change

Prior to the ban, the campaign for eco-friendly straws gained momentum among the service industry. Supplying 1.8 million straws to its four million customers, McDonald’s committed to transitioning all plastic straws to paper across the UK. Although there has since been some resistance from the public, not considering the quality or changing customer behaviour, other establishments have followed suit, such as Pizza Express, Wagamama, Costa, and All Bar One – most of which will be switching to paper. While the shift from plastic was already underway, it is likely the ban will now accelerate the transition, parallel to necessary improvements in quality to make the change sustainable.