For the last 5,000 years, people around the world have been sipping their drinks out of straws. Only recently have straws come under serious debate.
The gold and lapis straws of the ancient Sumerians evolved over the millennia into the plastic straws ubiquitous in restaurants, coffee shops, and bars today. According to one group’s estimate, Americans now use and discard an average of 500 million plastic straws per day.
Each of these straws contributes to the global plastic pollution epidemic; plastic straws are now one of the top 10 garbage items polluting the ocean and destroying marine life, according to StrawFree.org. The Earth Day Network considers plastic pollution “one of the most important environmental problems we face today,” and the theme for this year’s Earth Day on April 22 is “end plastic pollution.”
To reduce plastic waste, cities across the U.S. are following the lead of many European cities in banning or restricting plastic straws in restaurants. The New York Times reported on this trend in March 2018, referencing regulations in Miami Beach, FL; Seattle, WA; and Davis, CA, among others.
Given the growing movement against plastic straws, do they still have a place in our society?
NACCHO spoke with public health experts from our Food Safety and Climate Change Workgroups to consider the health benefits of straws and determine safe and equitable alternatives to plastic.
Protection from Contamination
Straws offer a layer of protection between your mouth and a drinking receptacle.
According to Vito Palazzolo, manager of program compliance at the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, restaurant and bar glasses are generally clean, and they carry “very little” risk of causing an illness.
However, cautioned Rachel Patterson, director of environmental health and sustainability for Plano, TX, “The cleanliness of restaurant glassware is dependent on the warewashing methods of the facility. It is fairly common to find a restaurant dishwashing machine that is not receiving enough sanitizer during the process.”
Straws are particularly effective shields for soda and beer cans, on which the top is fully exposed.
“Cans get so filthy in warehouses and in transport,” said Chuck Stack, DrPH Candidate and Estelle Goldstein Memorial Scholar at UIC School of Public Health. “Straws provide the consumer with a barrier against contamination from dirty beverage cans and bottle tops.”
Plastic Straw Alternatives
Luckily, plastic straws are not the only type that can protect against contaminants.
“Identifying and promoting alternatives is important,” said Paul Shoemaker, acting director of the environmental & occupational health division for the Boston Public Health Commission. “In this case, it may be looking into compostable straws and other options.”
One local health department official recommended going back to basics: “Before there were plastic straws there were paper straws. Businesses need to provide straws to all patrons, making their establishment equitable to all, and the paper straw would still allow those that need the device to have one,” said Debbie Barry, Communities that Care facilitator/coordinator for Las Animas-Huerfano Counties District Health Department in Colorado.
Christine Hughes, registered sanitarian for the Flathead City-County Health Department in Kalispell, MT, agreed: “My suggestion would be to use disposable paper straws, thus reducing plastic waste and going to a biodegradable product.”
Reusable straws made from stainless steel or silicone are another environmentally-friendly alternative, but Hughes fears these may introduce new sanitation challenges. “I’m not sure how you could thoroughly get food particles out of a reusable straw unless it was wide enough to scrub the inside of the straw,” said Hughes.
Patterson offered similar reasoning: “Reusable straws would be difficult to maintain in a sanitary condition without specialized equipment to thoroughly clean and sanitize them on the inside. I think a better solution would be compostable straws made of paper.”
Access for All
Plastic straws have some qualities that paper straws currently lack: They are durable in both hot and cold beverages, and they allow for a bend in the straw for additional flexibility.
While some people may like plastic straws better out of personal preference, others depend on plastic straws to drink independently. Disability rights activists started speaking out when Scotland proposed a country-wide plastic straw ban by 2019.
“I support all efforts to reduce and stop the use of non-recyclable plastic, of all sorts, including straws (which I rely on to drink),” wrote One in Five Campaign co-founder Pam Duncan-Glancy in a recent column in The Big Issue. “However, as with all policy, this has to be done in a way that both serves to protect our environment for future generations and does not disproportionately affect disabled people.”
The same equity considerations are relevant domestically. “Persons with disabilities (PWD) or those who need plastic straws should have access to them,” said Bryan Russell, disability and health program manager for the Florida Department of Health. “An outright ban is not the best idea and the alternative materials are not always a good solution for PWD.”
City and county governments looking into plastic straw legislation may want to review NACCHO’s Health in All Policies resources, which help to ensure that policy decisions have neutral or beneficial impacts on the determinants of health.
A Straw Success Story
In November 2017, the City Council of San Luis Obispo, CA voted unanimously to adopt an initiative to reduce plastic straws. The “straws upon request” ordinance, which took effect on March 1, 2018, prohibits restaurants, bars and cafes from providing single-use beverage straws to customers except upon request.
“Putting the choice in the hands of the consumer has given them flexibility to bring their own reusable straw, skip the use of a straw, or request one if needed,” said Mychal Boerman, water resources program manager for the City of San Luis Obispo.
While the regulation has not been in effect long enough to examine its environmental impact, Boerman has already seen positive results.
“The most inspiring transformation brought on by the distribution restriction is the creativity brought forth by bars and restaurants in the area…One particular restaurant is planning to go the extra mile and collect a fee for straws requested by customers and then turn those collections over to a charity supporting the same environmental goals!”
If your health department has successfully limited plastic straws or other causes of plastic pollution in your jurisdiction, share your story through NACCHO’s Stories from the Field website.