Just a few years ago, you automatically received a straw with any cold takeout drink and probably didn’t think twice about it. No longer. Seattle is the latest city to join at least a dozen others across the United States in banning plastic straws. McDonald’s in the United Kingdom and KFC in Singapore have also served their final straws.
Governments and companies are taking this action because of the staggering volume of waste generated by something most people don’t need: An estimated 7.5 percent of plastic in the environment comes from straws and stirrers, according to an analysis by a group of pollution research nonprofits called Better Alternatives Now, which based its results on trash collected by volunteers around the world. A recent report by the World Economic Forum projects that by the year 2050, the plastic in our oceans will outweigh the fish.
Sipping from a straw introduces air into the digestive tract. This can cause uncomfortable digestive symptoms, such as gas and bloating. When I’m counseling clients who are experiencing these symptoms, I always ask them about lifestyle habits, such as whether they drink from a straw often. Some of my clients have experienced significant improvements by ditching straws, as well as cutting back on two other habits that introduce air into the digestive tract: drinking carbonated beverages and chewing gum.
Drinking sugary or acidic beverages through a straw can increase the likelihood of cavities. Straws send a concentrated stream of liquid toward a small area of the teeth, which can erode enamel and cause tooth decay. On the other hand, straws can also be used to lower the risk of cavities if they’re positioned behind the teeth, at the back of the throat, although this approach isn’t realistic or comfortable for most people.
Most single-use plastic straws are made from polypropylene, a type of plastic commonly made from petroleum. Polypropylene is thought to be food-safe in amounts approved by the Food and Drug Administration. But there is evidence that chemicals from polypropylene can leach into liquids and may release compounds that could affect estrogen levels, especially when exposed to heat, acidic beverages or UV light.
More established is the fact that degraded plastics found in the ocean are ingested by marine wildlife, making their way up the food chain and perhaps winding up at the dinner table. So not only can plastics harm animals in the environment — think about the sea turtle with the straw up its nostril — but bits of them, and the toxic chemicals within, may hurt us all.
On a lighter note, regular use of straws can also lead to the same wrinkles that smokers get around their mouths. These “pucker lines” could persuade the masses to stop using straws.
It’s been argued that sipping liquids such as soft drinks through a straw could contribute to excess sugar intake. The thought is that straws cause you to gulp down a greater volume of liquid more quickly than drinking from a glass or cup. Plus, people aren’t very accurate about estimating how much liquid they’re taking in, especially if they’re distracted by a movie or smartphone screen.
The idea that drinking alcohol through a straw leads to faster intoxication is another theory that’s been repeated often. Yet much like the excess-sugar theory, it’s popular but unproven.
Blaming a straw for excess sugar consumption is like blaming a fork for weight gain. I suggest it’s less the delivery mechanism and more what’s at the other end of it that’s to blame.
For environmental reasons and because of the health implications, I’d be in favor of phasing out straws — with a caveat. They should still be available to people with disabilities who really need them.
In my work with patients with neuromuscular conditions and other difficulties, I’ve seen how drinking straws can allow for greater independence when drinking beverages. Paper straws aren’t firm enough for some of these individuals, so plastic straw bans could make their lives more difficult.
Offering plastic straws by request, as is done in some places, would permit only those who really need them to have access. For people who want to continue using straws, there are plenty of more eco-friendly options available. I’ve seen materials as diverse as bamboo, silicone, glass, stainless steel and even long tubes of pasta! Make sure your reusable straw hasn’t been chemically treated and is easily cleaned. Also keep in mind that more-rigid straws increase the risk of injury to the mouth and shouldn’t be used by children.
While the anti-straw movement is an impressive step toward reducing waste in our oceans, there is much more work to be done. Whether we like it or not, plastic is a part of us now. Chemicals from plastic manufacturing show up in our urine, blood and cells. So let’s take the conversation beyond straws and move to reduce the use of all single-use plastics in our daily lives to protect our oceans, and ourselves.
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