If you’ve been out to a café, restaurant or bar lately, there’s a good chance you’ll have been given a plastic straw with your drink.
Plastic straws first became popular in the UK in the 1960s after they took over from paper straws, and it’s estimated that “Britain uses around 8.5 billion of them a year and America uses over 500 million a day” (source).
Plastic straws may be small, but they have a huge impact on the environment.
Straws are amongst the top ten items found in coastal clean-ups, partly because they are so easily littered.
Even if we try to dispose of plastic straws responsibly, they are easily blown into our oceans or fall down drains into our water-ways.
Once plastic straws reach our oceans, the consequences for marine life can be devastating.
Around “71% of seabirds and 30% of turtles have been found with plastic in their stomachs” (source), and there is a tragic 50% mortality rate for marine life that has ingested plastic.
Rather than biodegrading over time, plastic straws that reach the ocean break into increasingly smaller pieces, known as microplastics.
These stay around in our oceans forever, posing further threats to marine life including fish.
Plastic Straw Ban
The good news is that we are starting to wake up to the problem of single use plastics, including straws.
Many fast food restaurants, cafes and bars are already providing paper straws, and the government has confirmed that plastic straws (along with some other single use plastic items) will be banned from sale from 2020 in England.
The government ban of plastic straws will not apply to people with medical needs or disabilities, who will still be able to buy them from chemists as they’re often a safer option than paper or glass alternatives.
The ban is great news for the environment, but in the meantime, you may be wondering about the best way to recycle any plastic straws you might be given out and about, or already have in a cupboard at home.
Can Plastic Straws Be Recycled?
Yes, plastic straws can be recycled. However, they are difficult to recycle, which means that they rarely get recycled in practice.
Plastic straws are made from a type 5 plastic called polypropylene.
Although it is technically possible to recycle polypropylene, straws can cause a lot of problems at recycling centres.
Plastic straws are small and lightweight and can easily fall through the sorting screens or get stuck in machinery.
For this reason, plastic straws that end up in recycling plants often contaminate other recycled materials which then end up on a landfill site, and most recycling centres won’t accept plastic straws at all.
How to Recycle Plastic Straws
There is a clever and easy way to recycle plastic straws so that they’re much less likely to cause problems at recycling plants:
- Find a container made from the same type 5 plastic as straws (check the bottom of the container for a recycling symbol with the number 5 inside).
Examples include takeaway food containers, plastic butter tubs and microwave meal containers. Make sure you keep the lid for the container.
- Each time you use a plastic straw pop it in the plastic container (you can always cut them in half to fit).
- Once the container is full, put the lid on securely and take the container of straws to your nearest recycling facility that can recycle polypropylene (or check if you have a kerbside collection).
The straws stored in the container won’t get stuck in the machinery and should be recycled with the other plastic.
What Should You Do With Plastic Straws You Already Have?
Although it is possible to recycle plastic straws, “not many recyclers will recycle all the type 5 plastic that they receive” (source), because of the low demand for recycled polypropylene, meaning the straws may still end up in landfill.
So what can we do with any plastic straws that we might have at the back of our cupboards at home?
There are hundreds of ideas of how to reuse unwanted plastic straws online.
Plastic straws are perfect for all kinds of craft projects, from simple activities that the kids can try themselves (making mobiles, necklaces or using straws to blow paint), to fun projects that creative adults can make too, such as lampshades and sculptures made from brightly coloured straws.
If you’re not the artistic type, there are lots of other ideas for reusing plastic straws too, such as using straws to stop jewellery getting tangled or for organising wires.
Clare began her career as a technical writer, but since having her boys has worked mostly from home writing content for various websites, including health and beauty and educational resource sites.