The Absolute State of Paper Straws

Paper straws continue to plague society, heralded as a “green” product when they are simply greener than their plastic predecessor. Instead of comparing the two, it’s time to shift the needle towards outlawing single-use straws altogether, recognising them as the infantalising and superfluous scourge that they are.

paper straws

Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia is now derided as one of history’s great miscalculations; so, too, is Hitler following suit 130 or so years later. It’s fair to say the Trojans regretted welcoming Odysseus’ wooden horse into the city of Troy, and the Allies of World War One would likely reconsider the Treaty of Versailles if given a second chance.

The invasions of Vietnam and Iraq were both rather significant recent missteps, while Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget backfired spectacularly. The French might have liked to renegotiate the terms of the Louisiana Purchase, and Chairman Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ was, in fact, a gargantuan lunge backward. 

It’s still early in their lifespan, but the advent of the paper straw could one day be held in the same pantheon of blunders of historical proportions. I am not trying to diminish the suffering caused by war or genocide, but hear me out.

paper straws

(Photo by Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for Nightclub & Bar Media Group)

Sadly paper straws are not even a new problem anymore, these soggy, hollow monstrosities. Despite the sheer stupidity of using a famously un-waterproof material for a tool that necessitates being submerged in liquid, paper straws caught on, as humanity attempts to reduce our dependence on disposable plastics. 

The intention behind paper straws is their sole redeeming quality, for when assessed on either their practicality or their actual environmental impact, paper straws are an unmitigated horror, and an entirely predictable one at that.

You do not need me to explain how irritating using a paper straw is. The chances are you’ve consumed a cold beverage of the takeaway variety in the last five or so years, and therefore have struggled to inhale your drink through wet cardboard. What is more surprising, considering how widely they’ve been adopted, is that their benefit compared to plastic remains up for debate.

Proponents of the paper straw will point out that paper is biodegradable, where plastic is not. This is largely true (in some cases even paper straws aren’t biodegradable), but it overlooks the extent of the environmental impact, relying on the buzzword “biodegradable” to appeal to the growing number of ethical consumers who want to avoid plastic further filling our landfills and oceans for hundreds of years to come – a noble intention.

paper straws

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Yet when you compare the two materials in energy needed for production and recycling, it’s a murkier picture. Research for the Northern Ireland Assembly found that it takes 91 per cent less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it takes to recycle a pound of paper. 

Even then, I’m being sucked into the trap of pitting paper versus plastic. Instead of indulging in this debate over which evil is worse, a better argument is simply how unnecessary disposable straws are to begin with. 

Once you reach the age of adolescence, and believe yourself to be a self-respecting adult, you should have no need for straws in most cases anyway. Perhaps if you’re having a milkshake or sipping a mimosa by the beach, you could make an exception, but I fail to see how a straw is necessary when bottles, cans and cups with mouthpieces exist already. A world without ubiquitous single-use straws is wholly conceivable. We expect them only because we have come to expect them. 

It seems obvious enough that restaurants and bars could employ reusable metal straws, treating them as a form of cutlery or tableware, should they wish. Anyone who really enjoys straws at home could do the same.

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