PLASTIC FREE JANUARY – TIP #6
Three years ago there wasn’t a lot of noise about how devastating plastic straws were for the environment. This all changed when a video of a turtle with a plastic straw stuck up its nostril made it’s rounds on social media. People started paying attention, and those who had been campaigning about straws for years prior, finally had thousands of vocal allies.
Straws are a staple behind almost every bar and restaurant you visit, with bartenders happily placing straws in every drink that crosses their bar. It’s an automatic motion, drink=straw.
While it’s been great to see plastic straws being replaced with more environmentally friendly options, there are still a few misconceptions about what constitutes an environmentally friendly straw.
Last year, upon arrival at a local oceanside bar in Palm Cove, I’d noticed they’d switched their plastic straws to a new “compostable” straw. While this was well intentioned—they were in fact trying to eliminate plastic straws from the establishment—these compostable straws really were not much different then their plastic counterparts.
When people say their compostable plastic item is “environmentally friendly, because it’s compostable,” my reply is always: “that’s great, but do you compost it?”
Compostable straws, and other compostable plastics won’t compost themselves, and the majority of them require industrial composting in order to break down. Although the Cairns City Council does process some of their organic waste into compost, there would be no way for a facility such as this to distinguish a compostable straw versus a plastic straw. Furthermore, most industrial facilities don't accept compostable plastics as they take too long to break down. Therefore, I knew these new straws were headed to the same place as the previous plastic straws—off to landfill where they most definitely won’t break down.
For the record, I can happily report this beachside bar and restaurant has switched to paper straws.
If you’ve been following EORTH’s Plastic Free January tips, then you’ve likely seen our “unscientific experiment” on the biodegradability of PATCH Adhesive Strips. (In case you’re wondering YES, they passed the test).
Our experiments don’t stop at band aids! Although the outside of the box of compostable straws at the above mentioned bar clearly stated “industrial composting,” we decided to see how it would fair in a backyard compost. We do live in Far North Queensland after all, and it’s been pretty darn hot for the last few months, so surely our compost heap gets hot enough to break down a compostable straw!
The compostable straw experiment
When recently digging in our compost pile, getting the ground ready for a fresh load of compostable waste—there it was, the compostable straw taken from the restaurant a few months prior. As you can see the straw is perfectly intact. So much so that you could still drink from it, (we didn’t). The straw has been placed back in the pile, we’ll check back in a few months to see if it still exists.
[update June 6, 2019]
Unlike the adhesive strips, I can report back, NO—this straw is not returning back to nature anytime soon.
We thought this straw had in fact finally broken down as it seemed to disappear from the original spot placed in the compost heap. However on June 6 after digging up the compost there it was again - perfectly intact. We've decided to let this one go. We've confirmed, an "industrial compost" straw does not break down in a home compost — not even in the hot tropics.
We also placed a compostable straw in our “biodegradable experiment patch,” to watch it break down in a natural environment. This test is to replicate someone “accidentally” throwing it on the ground. At present, I can also report that this straw is not heading back to nature any time soon. It’s been there for over a year and is still holding up strong.
What can we learn from these unscientific experiments?
Not all straws are equal. If you’re a restauranteur or bar owner, don’t get “sucked in” by the greenwash. Compostable straws won’t compost unless you place them in a compost, and it will need to be an industrial one.
Like to have a straw handy when you visit an establishment that hasn’t yet removed their plastic straws? Or perhaps you prefer to use a straw when sipping on your cocktail at home.
The best option is to choose a reusable straw.
You can purchase reusable straws in travel kits, as a single straw with a plastic free straw cleaner, there are bamboo straws and stainless steel straws. Whatever reusable option you choose, you can happily sip away knowing that your reusable straw is not going to end up lodged in the nostril of a turtle.