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Plastic straws are little, but they are part of a huge problem

They’re too small to be recycled, so they end up in the landfill by the millions.

Plastic straws in your drink seem harmless — right? But because of what they’re made of and their size and shape, they end up in a landfill and never decompose. (Zeljko Santrac/Getty Images)

The next time you buy a soda in a to-go cup, you might be surprised to find your straw is made of paper. That’s because more and more restaurants are trying to stop using plastic straws, and some cities are even banning them. How could something as little as a straw cause such a big fuss? It’s actually the small size of straws that makes them bad for the environment.

Why is plastic bad for the planet?

It’s important to limit your use of plastic for a few reasons. First, it takes energy and resources to make any object, which means to make plastic, we must create pollution and sacrifice dwindling resources such as water and fossil fuels. Many items made out of thin plastic, such as straws and grocery bags, are meant to be used once. In most cases, it’s better for the environment to make and buy products that last a long time.

But the trouble doesn’t end there. Most plastics don’t decompose, or biodegrade, when we toss them. Plastics can stay in landfills for hundreds of years. And plastic in the ocean floats around as small pieces (called microplastics) that can poison animals and hurt the environment.

A close look at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Straws are only one small part of the problem. Humans have created about 9.1 billion tons of plastic since inventing the material, and we don’t recycle most of it. Straws probably make up a very, very small percentage of our trash worldwide. But they’ve recently gotten a lot of attention because of how difficult they are to recycle.

Why can't we just recycle plastic straws?

Recycling is very important: It keeps many of our plastic objects from spending hundreds of years causing trouble. Unfortunately, your straws always end up in a landfill.

“Plastic straws and other items smaller than two by two inches, such as plastic utensils, fall through the machinery that sorts our recycling,” says Jonathan Kuhl of the D.C. Department of Public Works. “Because of this, we ask District residents not to put these small items in their recycling bins.” The same is true in most recycling plants around the country.

What can we do about it?

“The best way to keep plastic straws out of landfills is not to use them — whether you’re at home or in a restaurant,” Kuhl says. “If you’d like to use a straw, there are paper and other nonplastic alternatives.”

Some people need plastic straws to drink because of physical limitations, so until we find an alternative that works for everyone, we can’t get rid of them entirely. But if you drink with a straw just for fun or convenience, you should try to stop using plastic ones.

Paper straws will probably crop up at many stores and restaurants, but you can also try reusable straws made of bamboo, metal and glass. Some companies even make straws out of pasta. You can give that method a try at home with a hollow noodle such as bucatini. Just don’t try to use it for a hot beverage, or you’re going to end up cooking a very strange soup!

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