US coffee chain Starbucks announced on Monday that it will eliminate all plastic straws for cold drinks in its 28,000 global stores within two years and replace them with recyclable straw-free coffee-cup lids, and paper-made straws or biodegradable plastic straws so as to reduce waste, reported The New York Times.
The plastic straw, a once ubiquitous accessory for frosty summer drinks and sugary sodas, has been falling out of favor in recent years, faced with a growing backlash over its effect on the environment.
In the United States alone, an estimated more than 500 million disposable plastic straws are used every day, according to Eco-Cycle, a nonprofit recycling organization. Although plastic straws are made from polypropylene, a recyclable plastic, most recyclers won’t accept them.
“Plastic straws are pretty small and lightweight, so when they’re going through the mechanical sorter, they’re often lost or diverted,” said Sam Athey, a plastics pollution researcher and member of the Plastic Ocean Project, a nonprofit based in Wilmington, NC, that aims to reduce plastic use.
That means plastic straws get tossed in the garbage, ending up in landfills and polluting the ocean.
It takes “about 200 years for polypropylene plastic straws to break down under normal environmental conditions,” Ms Athey said.
During that time, the plastic becomes brittle and breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics, which can be eaten by organisms, she added.
Further complicating matters, when the plastics break down, their surface area to volume ratio increases, Ms Athey said, “so they have the ability to attract and absorb more pollutants like BPA, which is a known endocrine disrupter.”
It is difficult to know how many straws or straw particles end up in the world’s waterways and oceans, but plastic straws are one of the most common items found on beaches, according to the Ocean Conservancy, whose volunteers have picked up more than 9 million straws and stirrers from beaches and waterways.
The movement to ban single-use straws has gained traction via the work of nonprofits, lawmakers and online campaigns like Stop Sucking and the Last Plastic Straw, not to mention a graphic 2015 video, viewed on YouTube more than 30 million times, that showed marine biologists pulling a straw out of a sea turtle’s nose.
And it shows no sign of slowing down.
In Los Angeles, a Kickstarter campaign to develop “the world’s first collapsible, reusable straw” has already drawn $1.9 million in contributions, and a documentary called “Straws,” now screening across the country, examines the problems caused by plastic pollution. The theme of this year’s Earth Day was ending plastic pollution; one of the goals is to eliminate single-use plastics.
This month, Seattle, the headquarters of Starbucks, became one of the first major cities in the United States to ban single-use plastic straws. Several cities in Florida and California have banned or partially banned the
straws, and state officials in California are considering a measure that would prevent restaurants from handing out plastic straws unless requested by a customer. In New York, there have been recent proposals to ban single-use plastic bags statewide, and to outlaw plastic straws at eateries across New York City.
In areas where plastic straws are not already banned or limited, businesses like SeaWorld, McDonald’s and Alaska Airlines are taking some measures to reduce their use.
Starbucks earned $22.4 billion in annual revenue last year, making it one of the largest businesses to announce it would eliminate plastic straws.
“By nature, the straw isn’t recyclable and the lid is, so we feel this decision is more sustainable and more socially responsible,” Chris Milne, director of packaging sourcing for Starbucks, said in a statement.
So far, the new cold-cup lids have debuted in more than 8,000 stores in the U.S. and Canada and will be in stores worldwide by 2020. The retailer’s cold drinks have become increasingly important to its bottom line: five years ago, they made up 37 percent of beverage sales; by 2017, it was more than half, Starbucks said in a statement.
The pressure to avoid disposable straws has created a market for reusable straws made of materials like paper, silicone, stainless steel, glass and bamboo. Some of the businesses that have rejected disposable plastic straws opt for a compostable plastic straw.
Environmentalists say those straws can be problematic, too. If they are thrown away instead of composted, for example, they won’t break down.
But plastic straws were just a small part of the 335 million tons of plastic produced globally in 2016.
Scott DeFife, the vice president of government affairs at the Plastics Industry Association, said his organization encourages designing products in a way that facilitates recovery and recycling. Straws are not to blame; the problem is litter, he said.
“Plastic straws have legitimate and important uses, and banning them gives a false sense of accomplishment, which is more harmful in the long run,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure that every product, no matter how small, can be properly recovered.”