This story appears in the July 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.
More than 100 million single-use straws—most of them plastic—are used in the United States each day. They end up in waterways, harm sea animals, and break down into microplastics that are becoming ubiquitous on Earth. Numerous places have passed plastic-straw bans as a way to start addressing the global plastic waste problem. Disability advocates, however, have pushed back on bans: They say straws are a necessary, everyday tool for many people, and nonplastic versions may not be suitable substitutes.
Straw materials: Assets and disadvantages
Made of stainless steel, aluminium, or even titanium, metal straws have become a popular alternative. They draw some criticism—for having a metallic taste, conducting heat from a hot drink, and clanking against the teeth—but they’re durable to transport and reuse.
Paper drinking straws, which date from the late 1800s, often absorb liquid over time, become mushy, and can leave a taste or fibres in drinks. They’re the most popular throwaway option in places with plastic-straw bans.
This material provides a popular soft alternative to metal reusable straws. One company has developed a silicone straw with an extra environmental twist: When burned, it turns into biologically inert ash.
Though glass straws may be more breakable and thus less portable than reusable straws of other materials, they hold up well to washing and reuse. Some makers add an artistic flair to the straws with colours and blown-glass designs and ornaments.
5. Hard plastic
Reusable straws made from rigid plastic are portable, easy to clean, and reasonably durable. Think of your typical reusable plastic water bottle shrunken to straw size.
This natural material can be sustainably produced and is a plant-based alternative to fabricated straws. Bamboo straws are reusable but can be hard to clean completely and may absorb flavours. When it’s time to dispose of them, they’re easily compostable.
7. Bendable straws
When bendable straws were first made in the 1940s, they were a boon in health-care settings to help patients drink without sitting up. Plastic bendable straws have become the safe, low-cost default in such settings—but the hunt is on for greener alternatives.