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Is swiping plastic straws for paper good for the environment? Here's why you shouldn't fall for it.

Written by Khadra Anabosy

A few years ago I started actively avoiding the use of straws and other disposable plastic products like plastic cups, cutlery, bags, and more. And I wasn't alone, the community, in general, got more aware of the harm of these products on the environment especially with the declining content about it on social media. In 2015 a video of a marine biologist pulling out a straw from a sea turtle's nose trial got viral and was followed by many similar videos of people saving sea creatures from disposable plastic products.

These videos are thought to be one of the causes of raising awareness of the harm of disposable plastic products on the sea. The graphic content in them and the disturbing visuals of animals struggling is what made them viral. Seeing creatures tied with our daily trash, unlike the clips that we used to see on wildlife channels of sea turtles swimming peacefully through the clean blue ocean hit our reality and led more people to take action.

On the other hand, businesses saw an opportunity in this trend and started marketing them themselves as eco-friendly businesses. I visited some restaurants where I used to voluntarily ask the waiter to not bring straws with the drinks and they would respond that they swiped the plastic straws with biodegradable ones. On Instagram stories, I saw some of my friends showing off their drinks with these paper straws. Stores that labeled their shopping bags with "Green bag" or "Biodegradable bag" giving you the feeling that you consuming them you're not doing anything bad. It makes you even proud of yourself that you would post it on the internet. But it made me wonder isn't paper also harmful to the environment?!

I started searching for an answer, are paper straws or bags better than the plastic ones?

The answer is no, the only good thing about paper disposables is that they look like they "disappear". And this is why using paper instead of plastic is a greenwash. Marketers will convince you that their products or services are a better choice and eco-friendly because the paper is biodegradable, unlike plastic that can last for hundreds of years in nature causing damage to animals and the environment.

But that's not totally true because although paper can dissolve and decompose in nature within weeks and even days in water environments like oceans and rivers when paper decomposes it emits methane; a greenhouse gas. In addition, these products aren't made of paper only and here lays the first problem. Paper bags and paper straws are usually attached with glue and many of them are printed and painted which adds more inorganic chemicals to the product. When paper products decompose the glue, ink and other chemicals are released into nature. And that can be toxic and pollutes both water resources and soil.

Photo by Monica Grabkowska

Add to that, the damages caused by the manufacturing process and transportation. Did we forget that paper is made out of trees?! The production of paper contributes to deforestation destroying the natural habitats of many creatures and destroying the oxygen resources that we need. After cutting the trees the process of producing paper out of wood requires energy and a huge amount of water. Besides that, the transportation of these products adds even more to the greenhouse gases.

So what is the solution? Well, the answer is easy, just drink from the glass and ditch the straw. Guess what, humanity has been drinking from cups since the invention of cups and the drinking straws were first filed as a patent only in 1888. Switching from plastic to biodegradable material is evading the main problem of the excessive consumption of single-use disposable products. And in case you're drinking a thick liquid like a shake buy yourself a reusable straw from stainless steel, glass, or hard plastic. And for shopping bags, I find tote bags to be very useful. I also recommend other reusable large shopping bags that can be folded into pocket size, this way you can keep one with you everywhere you go and use it even if you didn't plan for shopping.

Maintaining a sustainable life can be challenging especially that excessive consumption became part of the mainstream and the way we live. But don't be discouraged and remember that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one small step. So ditch the disposable products one at a time and you will find the process easy and even satisfying.

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