The humble plastic straw has found itself in the middle of one of the most important conversations facing us today: How do we save the planet?

On June 11, the House Commerce Committee will vote on plastic straw legislation authored by Rep. Mary Jo Daley (D-Montgomery). Daley's legislation —House Bill 1176 — seeks to prohibit establishments from offering single-use plastic straws unless a customer specifically requests one. Her proposal seeks to address the issue of single-use plastic waste without completely banning the bendable straws that many people with disabilities rely on.

It’s easy to sip on a refreshing drink and then toss the plastic straw in the trash. Unfortunately, it’s even easier for people to litter. Doing easy things has gotten us into trouble with post-consumer waste and climate change.

Experts estimate that it takes more than 100 years for a plastic straw to decompose.

It’s difficult to pinpoint statistics on exactly how many plastic straws are used in the United States every day. A commonly cited number of 500 million per day originally entered the media stream years ago in association with then-9-year-old Milo Cress, who founded Be Straw Free, an organization aimed at persuading restaurants to reduce plastic straw use. Experts put the number at a couple hundred million less than that. No matter the exact figure, there are millions of plastic straws being thrown away every day, and plastic straws are routinely found in the ocean or along beaches.

A plastic straw is a small thing. Small enough that some people laugh off the plastic straw bans imposed in cities across the country. But reducing waste begins with small steps, which could mean trying one of the many eco-friendly alternatives to plastic straws — such as paper straws, straws made from other biodegradable material and reusable straws made from bamboo or stainless steel — or forgoing straws altogether.


Recycling

In Lancaster County, plastic straws must be placed in the trash. (Recent recycling changes are focusing on the big four: metal food and beverage containers, plastic bottles and jugs that have a neck, corrugated cardboard and glass bottles and jars.)

“Locally, people should understand that the marine litter issue has more to do with poor waste management practices in other countries,” says Kathryn Sandoe, chief commercial officer at Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority. “People living in countries without a waste management system will resort to dumping their trash in the streets, dry river beds, which are then carried into waterways and eventually into the ocean.”

Still Sandoe says the authority encourages people “if possible, to not use plastic straws or try the reusable kind instead. ... Once someone is done with their plastic straw, it should be placed in the trash. In Lancaster County, LCSWMA will combust the trash and make electricity from it. However, reducing our reliance upon single-use plastics is an important issue — locally, nationally and and globally. People in Lancaster County can help make a difference by being mindful consumers.”

There are companies addressing the plastic straw problem, and local restaurants and businesses are embracing eco-friendly solutions and raising awareness of alternatives to plastic straws.

The Rijuice stand at Central Market offers Hay Straws — a drinking straw made from wheat stems produced by a company based in San Francisco. Initially, Rijuice tried offering paper straws but were dissatisfied with the product and eventually found Hay Straws.

“They even work in coffee,” says Chris Tamburro, sales associate with the local cold-pressed juice company.

“Some people are immediately like, ‘That’s a good idea.’ Some think they’re silly and they’re something that started because of a viral sea turtle video. But that video was good for awareness.” Tamburro says.

The video Tamburro is referring to shows a team of scientists working to remove what they think is a worm from a sea turtle’s nostril. The woman filming is infuriated when they discover it’s a plastic straw. (“Straws are useless!” she cries.) It’s obvious the turtle is in pain, and it can be painful to watch.


Single-use plastics

“It’s not about straws specifically, but the amount of plastic waste we create,” Tamburro says. “It’s one small thing, but that’s the easiest way that anybody can help with an environmental issue — regardless of any political affiliation.”

The Horse Inn is another local establishment that is embracing Hay Straws.

“About three years ago, I started reading a lot about single-use plastic and how detrimental to our environment it was,” says Starla Russell, one of the owners of the Horse Inn. “We decided to make changes where we could. Straws and to-go containers were one of the big things that we had control over and could change. … We went to paper straws and a compostable straw made from corn. We have since dropped the compostable corn straws and went with a more fitting straw for the Horse: Hay Straws. When I found these, I knew it was a perfect fit for us.”

A small change, but something that people can actually do. And even reducing the number of straws we use —or making them available by request in restaurants — could be a step toward eliminating unnecessary waste.

“Let’s face it, we don’t really have a lot of control in the global community, but every little thing that we can personally do on a daily basis has to have some impact, small or large,” Russell says. “We know we are not solving the problem overnight, but we know that we are doing our small part for this planet and everything on it.”

It seems in recent years that plastic straws have become a sort of straw man for the entire plastics industry. Plastics aren’t all bad (bendable plastic straws, for example, serve an important purpose for people with physical limitations) but single-use disposable plastics do find their way into landfills.

“Plastics are amazingly versatile materials that have improved our quality of life in countless ways, but they can also take hundreds of years to decompose, which means that, as litter, they persist for a very long time in our natural environment,” says Chris Steuer, sustainability director at Millersville University. “Plastic straws don’t necessarily make up a large share of the plastic waste stream, but they are something tangible that we encounter every day that reminds us how easily we dispose of things that will last for hundreds of years after only using them once.”

In the summer of 2018, Millersville University decided to transition from plastic straws to a biodegradable paper straw. By March 2019, the university had completely phased out plastic straws in all its dining locations on campus.

“It’s a small change that we made to reduce unnecessary waste,” says Ed Nase, director of dining and conference services at Millersville University. “And to demonstrate to our students that we’re thinking about their future.”