A bamboo fiber-made tube large enough so I can drink boba? I’m talking about sipping straws here, in case you’re confused. A steel option that is at 35cm in length, that I can leave it in my reusable water bottle? Or the copper one, purely for the color? Which one? I have faced the same dilemma before; but back then, as an eight-year-old, it was whether to go with the flexible red one with a twist in the middle, the blue option with two loops, or the yellow example with the sparkles. I was overwhelmed. And as you might expect of a kid, I picked them all. Now, those three reusable plastic straws are probably in a landfill somewhere or traveling the oceans. So again, which straw? Actually, a decade and a half after that indecision, I categorically choose no straw. Don’t want one, don’t need one. I’ve seen the light: “reusable” doesn’t mean “forever” – these straws have a shelf-life too and will eventually end up in the trash.
Riding the wave of social-media activism against single-use plastics, a new product has sprung up in the #sustainability movement: the reusable straw. You can’t miss them. Instagram, for example, is full of ads touting the virtues of reusable, #sustainable straws – shouting “Buy me!” For a brief moment, I found myself, again, evaluating the merits of straws. They’re less whimsical now – no loops, no sparkles. And to complement the very seriousness of the product on offer, they come almost with a moral imperative: “Buy me and save the world, the sea, the turtles.” But adult-me questions that shibboleth. Why do I even need one?
Obviously, we want to get rid of pointless plastics. At the start of the summer, a video of the Caribbean tourist destination, the Dominican Republic, went viral. Where you’d have expected shots of the surf spraying and teasing the sand, there were instead flashes of red, blue, white and black: plastic. Plastic bottles, plastic bags and plastic straws so densely packed together you wouldn’t imagine an ocean beneath it all – except for a hint of the occasional swell from a wave of synthetics. The video was released by activist group Parley, of Parley for the Oceans, known for its popular Run for the Oceans collaboration with Adidas.
Social-media environmental campaigns like Parley’s and Lonely Whale’s #StopSucking are part of a series of single-use-plastic-ban announcements in the past few months. In April, Britain announced a ban on all single-use plastics, including straws and cotton swabs. The new ban follows the country’s imposition of a charge on plastic bags, which has reduced single-use plastic bag consumption by 90 percent.
Following closely behind, during a World Environment Day conference, the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, pledged to ban all single-use plastics by 2022. Some Indian states have actually already done that: in Maharashtra, of which mega-city Mumbai is the capital, businesses and residents found breaching a ban are fined and even face jail time.
Perhaps in response to these government initiatives, big business has jumped on the bandwagon. Starbucks announced it would retire its famously recognizable green straw by 2020. In its place will be a new recyclable plastic lid that resembles that of a sippy cup. Meanwhile, McDonald’s in Malaysia has stopped offering plastic straws – they are only supplied if requested. So, all good. The reusable idea is gaining traction.
Yet, I cannot help but think that there are good reusable products and bad ones. Some things are just so pointless that we don’t even need reusable versions. Just bin them (metaphorically).
Straws have been around since the 19th century, and have permeated our lives. They are fun and convenient. Some of us need them – like the disabled, hospital patients and the elderly. But most of us don’t. What is so difficult of sipping from your cup? And while reusable straws are better than single-use straws, they still have a big impact on the environment. The mass production, packaging and even recycling of these straws creates industrial waste. As the idiom goes, we’d be taking two steps forward and one step back.
I urge all those in the #sustainable movement to pause and think before purchasing a reusable straw. Is drinking that hard?
Alexa Mena is a multidisciplinary artist and media editor for livehealthy.ae. When she's not writing for livehealthy, she's thinking about design and how it shapes the human experience.