The Last Straw for Wasteful Convenience Products

By JOANNA DETZ

straws

Fellow citizens: We need to suck it up, without plastic straws.

Americans use 500 million straws daily. That’s enough to fill 127 school buses each day for a year.

If that visual of plastic-straw-filled yellow buses makes you think of the children. Then let’s really Think of the Children and not leave them a legacy of insidious plastic waste. Here you go kids. We had our fun. Now clean up our mess.

Plastic straws aren’t recyclable. They go in the trash (best-case scenario), but often (worst-case scenario) they are discarded on the ground where they wash into local waterways, bays and oceans, where they pose a risk to wildlife and serve as a persistent memorial to human carelessness.

Unless you are younger than 3 or have no teeth, you don't need a plastic straw. It’s an unnecessary manufactured trinket that’s impossibly wasteful.

Rather than waste our time finding a way to recycle drinking straws, let’s just stop using them.

Ask for no straw when you order a soda, juice or glass of water. Talk to your local pub or favorite restaurant about going straw free.

Waste not
The plastic drinking straw is just one manifestation of the larger culture of consumerism that serves to crank out unnecessary items that create new waste streams.

We then scramble to keep these items out of our landfills by making them recyclable. But, in effect, doing so only serves as a tacit sanction of a culture of waste. Buying a product that can be recycled makes us feel better, but it doesn’t change our behaviors.

Don’t clam up
Those clamshells you can buy at the supermarket with all the vegetables pre-cut and entombed in plastic? Recyclable, yes, but totally unnecessary. Buy loose carrots or broccoli (you don’t even need to put them in a plastic bag) and spend a minute or two to wash and cut them up.

Bag it
Plastic shopping bags? Contrary to what some may think, this convenience product can’t go in your curbside recycling bin. Some retailers and big-box stores have collection bins to recycle them, but most bags aren’t recycled. In fact, some of those collected in store-front bins are later simply dumped in back-alley Dumpsters.

Many do have a second career blowing in the wind or being caught in tree branches. Sure they’re convenient, but how hard is it to keep a reusable bag in your car and opt out of using them altogether?

Not your cup of tea (or coffee)
What about coffee cups? Recently, Starbucks faced a backlash because the company had failed to make good on its promise to engineer a recyclable paper cup by 2015. The current single-use paper cups used by Starbucks and most other coffee establishments are lined with a thin plastic film, aren’t recyclable and are really no more virtuous than the oft-reviled Styrofoam cup used by Dunkin’ Donuts. About 58 billion paper cups are tossed out annually in the United States.

Instead of waiting around for Starbucks or for the paper-cup industry to create a recyclable cup, let’s take individual responsibility. Bring your reusable mug. It’s not that hard, and most places give you a discount for using one.

Recently, I was standing in line at my favorite local coffee shop, and I handed my reusable mug to the barista. The woman behind me exclaimed, “You can do that? Bring your mug and they fill it?” Instead of asking her where she had spent the past decade, I replied, “Yes, and you get a discount.”

Teaching moment: Check.

Single-use product waste is bad, but recycling single-use products requires massive amounts of energy and resources, and recycling rates in many areas are fairly dismal. The city of Providence for instance had a 15 percent recycling rate in 2015, according to the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation. The state average in Rhode Island was 25 percent last year.

It would be celebration-worthy if those rates were so low because we were actually eliminating single-use items from our lives.

Joanna Detz is the executive director of ecoRI News.