Plastic vs Paper vs Metal vs Glass vs Bamboo vs Silicone vs Other Reusable Straws: Comparison, & Which Is Best?

In this guide, we compare different types of straws, and look at which ones might be best from a sustainability perspective, but also from a practical perspective.

We compare plastic, paper, metal (stainless steel), glass, bamboo, & other types of straws.

 

Summary – Which Straws Are The Most Eco Friendly, & Best Overall?

Which Straws Are The Most Sustainable?

– Data & Information Used

There aren’t any comprehensive life cycle assessments that we could find on the different types of straws 

However, there is data on plastic straws specifically, and also life cycle assessments that have been done on plastic bags, paper and cotton bags, and metal and glass bottles, that we have extrapolated trends and data from for this guide.

There are also some smaller and independent guides that talk about the pros and cons of each type of straw that have relevant information, in addition to sustainability guides on the different types of materials that each straw is made from

 

– Which Types Of Straws Are The Most Eco Friendly?

What might be surprising to some is that lightweight and often disposable types of plastic (like LDPE) actually rate as the lowest eco impact material amongst many types of bags (including paper, and natural fibres like cotton that could be compared in some ways to bamboo), across several key sustainability indicators

Today’s straws are made mainly of Polypropylene though, and even PP is better than some other materials (like paper and some renewables like cotton) from an eco perspective 

Plastic bottles also have a far lower production footprint than metal bottles (stainless steel and aluminum), because of the energy requirements to process metal ores and fabricate metal

Glass has it’s own cons as a material such as being a heavier material than plastic, and having potentially higher transport and delivery costs, as well as having fragility and breakage issues

Plastic straws themselves make up a very small % of overall plastic pollution, but plastic straws and stirrers are one of the most common items found on clean ups of beaches, land and rivers (indicating they could be one of the most littered everyday items we use)

In summary – the more a straw is reused, the more the cost and environmental footprint averages out over time.

Single use and disposable straws are going to contribute to waste, and potentially pollution and littering at a higher rate.

The most sustainable option may be to reuse and repurpose existing straws as much as possible, and buy as few new straws as possible.

Not using a straw at all obviously means there’s no sustainability or waste footprint at all.

After that, reusable straws that are used many times or over a long period may be most sustainable amongst new straw options (compared to single use and disposable straws with higher waste rates)

 

– Sustainability Tips When Using Straws

At the bottom of this guide, we provide some sustainability ideas on using straws.

 

– Should Plastic Straws Be Banned?

We’ve discussed the subject of banning plastic straws separately in this guide 

 

Other Lifestyle Choices That Impact Sustainability Other Than The Straws We Use

Apart from the straws we use, other lifestyle options like the food we eat, the clothes and products we use, how we get around in terms of transport, and how we live at home, can have a significant impact on how sustainable our lifestyle is.

 

Practical Considerations For Each Material Of Straw

As far as practicality and usage goes, plastic is a flexible material and is widely used as a straw.

Paper can have issues with soginess from getting wet unless additives are added.

Metal lacks flexibility but is durable and reusable.

Glass can be an issue for very hot or very cold beverages, and can obviously be a breaking hazard in some instances

And, bamboo can have similar issues to paper.

Reusable straws like glass and metal might cost more, but will be cheaper over time if used more frequently.

Every straw has it’s pros and cons ultimately

 

Plastic Straws

– Practical Considerations

Plastic straws are flexible and can be bent

Plastic as a material is generally cheap to make and transport, and is lightweight

Plastic may handle hot and cold beverages, and be neutral enough as a material that it doesn’t impact the flavor of whatever the drink or beverage is

 

– Sustainability Considerations

Today’s straws are made mainly of Polypropylene (earth911.com), and even PP is better than some other materials from an eco perspective when we extrapolate data over from lifecycle assessments done on PP plastic bags (mst.dk)

Plastic is made from non renewable petrochemicals

Plastic generally isn’t as energy intensive to produce as other materials like metal, paper and some natural fibres.

Further issues potential issues with plastic may be disposal, waste management and pollution – essentially, the end of the lifecycle with plastic straws

Plastic straws generally can’t be recycled (and plastic itself has a low recycling rate), or straws will rarely be accepted with other forms of polypropylene (earth911.com), so straws have to be sent to landfill or incinerated.

Plastic straws and stirrers tend to fall amongst the top littered items in the world. This is probably because plastic straws are used so much, and they tend to be high waste/highly disposable and single use type items

Plastic also takes a long time to degrade, can contribute to a range of potentially negative effects such as leaching chemicals like BPA, breaking down into micro plastics, and being be ingested by wild life, or they get entangled by plastic

 

– Should Plastic Straws Be Banned?

We’ve discussed the subject of banning plastic straws separately in this guide 

 

Bioplastic (& Biodegradable) Straws

– Practical Considerations

Bioplastic is a newer type of plastic with it’s own set of properties

 

– Sustainability Considerations

Bioplastic and biodegradable (or compostable) straws tend to be made with renewable biomass material (like corn starches and oil) instead of fossil fuel feedstock.

Using a bioplastic straw has many of the same practical pros and cons as regular plastic

Whether bioplastics and supposedly compostable or biodegradable straws are better than plastic from an eco friendly, or sustainability perspective, is questionable.

Biodegradable straws can be made with PLA, and PLA usually only breaks down in commercial composting facilities and conditions. Since PLA does not decompose quickly in soil or seawater, this can become a problem when littered. PLA will also not be of benefit in a landfill as it doesn’t suit these conditions (greenliving.lovetoknow.com).

These straws can also contain potentially harmful additives because of their different chemical makeup.

They may only compost or biodegrade under certain conditions which aren’t available in industrial landfills (therefore making them just as bad as regular plastic straws).

Some ‘eco friendly’ plastic straws still contain non degradable substances and plastic particles, so, research and choose wisely.

 

Paper Straws

– Practical Considerations

Paper straws are soft and tend not to impact taste/flavor of a liquid being consumed, but a major complaint is that they can get wet and soggy when exposed to fluids over a certain amount of time.

To get around this issue, manufacturers may add synthetic additives or composite materials to paper straws so they hold their shape and don’t have ‘sogginess’ issues.

 

– Sustainability Considerations

Paper has a range of sustainability considerations that are different to plastic as a material

Paper can come from tree plantations, and trees are a renewable resource.

Paper can come from sustainably managed forests (you have to check that this is the case for a paper product you buy – look for certification)

Unbleached paper may be better than bleached (naturally dyes though may be far more eco friendly than synthetic dyes and coloring).

A problem with paper as a material though is that it generally uses a lot of water, and much more energy than plastic in the production phase.

Paper, like plastic, can also only be recycled a certain amount of times before it loses it’s quality and can’t be recycled anymore

So, paper straws may not be any more favorable than plastic in some ways (and are worse in others), but, they do tend to break down in the environment far quicker than plastic, and quicker over the long term than plastic in landfills (but not so much in the short term).

 

Metal Straws – Stainless Steel

– Practical Considerations

Metal, specifically stainless steel straws, don’t bend like plastic straws, and they can get a chill sensation when used with ice or cold drinks. 

They are reusable and washable, and much more durable than plastic, paper and bamboo.

They are also far less fragile and less of a risk to break than glass.

Like stainless steel drink bottles, food grade stainless steel straws might be one of the better options available (and food grade stainless steel is less prone to getting the metallic taste some people claim metal straws have).

 

– Sustainability Considerations

Stainless steel has a range of sustainability considerations compared to plastic as a material

Metal has to be mined, the ores processed, and there is a lot of energy that goes into making a metal product compared to plastic.

Recycling metal reduces some of this impact, and keeps metal resources in the supply chain instead of having to mine and process new resources (although with some metals like stainless steel, some virgin metal may be used in addition to recycled or reclaimed metal).

Recycling metals (which have good recycled economic value) also cuts down on any pollution problems that plastic may have.

In order for stainless steel to make sense from a sustainability perspective, the straw has to be re-used many times in order to average out the production footprint.

Washing with cold water instead of hot water (like in a dishwasher) will reduce the energy footprint associated with keeping the straw clean.

 

Glass Straws

– Practical Considerations

Glass straws, like metal straws, aren’t flexible/bendable like plastic straws can be.

Glass is a heavier material than plastic, and can be costlier to transport 

Borosilicate glass straws are usually the best option, as they are generally less prone to breaking, and seem to be better insulated against hot and cold beverages (greenliving.lovetoknow.com).

 

– Sustainability Considerations

Glass has a range of sustainability considerations compared to plastic as a material

The production of glass can use a lot of energy because of furnace process required to melt raw materials to make glass. Although, using glass cullet/recycled glass can reduce some of this energy and carbon footprint

The weight of heavier glass may mean it uses more fuel and potentially more packing material

Glass also doesn’t always tend to have a great recycling value due to different factors, and there can be complications in recycling glass in general, so glass recycling rates can be lower in some countries than metal.

Along with plastic, glass takes the longest of all materials to break down in the environment

 

Bamboo Straws

– Practical Considerations

Bamboo straws are not bendable like a plastic straw is

A bamboo straw generally doesn’t last as long or isn’t as durable as a top quality non corrosive stainless steel or glass straw might be.

 

– Sustainability Considerations

Bamboo has a range of sustainability considerations compared to plastic as a material

But, bamboo is a renewable and natural material (unlike plastic), and bamboo straws are generally reusable, and can be composted (as long as they are labelled as such) at the end of their life cycle.

So, they are more sustainable than plastic straws in these ways.

One of the good things about bamboo is that it is might be more eco friendly than cotton as a natural fibre if it uses less water, less fertilizer, and no pesticides during growing.

 

Silicone Straws

– Practical Considerations

Silicone straws tend to be light and durable

High quality food grade silicone is perhaps the best option for silicone straws.

 

– Sustainability Considerations

We’ve already put together guides examining the sustainability of silicone individually, and the sustainability of plastic compared to plastic

Whilst silicone has some sustainability and also practical advantages over plastic, it still has some of the same or similar sustainability concerns as well, with both being synthetic polymer materials that can have challenges in recycling at the rates of other materials

So, silicone doesn’t really solve many of the problems you may want to solve by avoiding plastic straws.

 

Sustainability Tips When Using Straws

Some potential ideas to make the use of straws more sustainable might include:

 

– Using no straw at all (where possible) is the most sustainable option

 

– Try to reuse a straw as many times as possible before disposing of it – especially metal straws.

This averages out the production and transport footprint

 

– Try to buy or find reusable straws second hand before buying a completely newly made one

 

– For extended use and reuse of a new straw – metal straws may be the best eco option.

But, they may have to be used several hundred times to make up for the energy used in the production process.

A benefit of metal is that it can be recycled over and over again, unlike plastic which loses it’s integrity/quality when recycled more than a certain amount of times

 

– For short use new straws – plastic straws may be the best eco option (because they are cheap and have a lower production and transport footprint).

But, plastic straws generally can’t be recycled as a soft plastic in many countries

 

– Make sure metal straws and other recyclable straws go to recycling where possible, and make sure plastic straws are put in general waste bins and not littered (where they tend to end up on land, in rivers, on beaches and in the ocean)

 

 

Sources

1. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/should-we-ban-plastic-straws-potential-impact-of-plastic-straws-a-comparison-to-plastic-straw-alternatives/

2. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/plastic-vs-glass-vs-metal-stainless-steel-aluminum-bottles-comparison-which-is-best/

3. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/should-we-ban-plastic-bottles/

4. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/plastic-vs-paper-vs-cotton-vs-other-reusable-bags-comparison-which-is-best/

5. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/is-this-the-most-effective-way-to-solve-stop-reduce-ocean-plastic-pollution/

6. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]

7. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/most-common-plastic-waste-generated-found-on-beaches-in-oceans-on-land/

8. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/potentially-harmful-effects-of-plastic-on-the-environment-wildlife-humans-health-the-economy/

9. https://earth911.com/home/food-beverage/recycling-mystery-plastic-straws/

10. https://www2.mst.dk/Udgiv/publications/2018/02/978-87-93614-73-4.pdf

11. https://greenliving.lovetoknow.com/Biodegradable_Drinking_Straws

12. https://www.biome.com.au/806-silicone-drinking-straws

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