Are metal straws sustainable?
What is the environmental impact of metal straws? Are metal straws better or worse than plastic? Are metal straws sustainable? Do metal straws help the environment?
If we advocate to replace plastic with some alternative, we need to be sure that the alternative is a true improvement.
Following extensive research, we have boiled these questions down to four environmental concerns - carbon footprint, waste, production, and shipping.
Carbon Footprint and Waste
Analysis has found that the manufacture of stainless steel straws emits 140.91g CO2 per straw, while plastic straws emit 1.10g CO2 per straw. So, a stainless steel straw needs to be used 128 times to abate the emissions versus a plastic straw.
Now, this may seem like a difficult number to achieve by an individual carrying around his/her own personal metal straw. But, in the hospitality industry serving 128 drinks is done quickly and would take only 1 to 4 months.
For example, if your venue owns 100 metal straws and serves 100 drinks per day, it will take 128 days for all of those straws to become carbon neutral and break-even on the environmental cost of manufacturing them. For the remaining 237 days of the year and for the rest of the lifetime of the metal straws, they continue to be washed and reused and are preventing CO2 from polluting the environment that would otherwise be omitted if using plastic straws. And no waste is created.
In contrast, if your venue serves 100 disposable (paper, plastic, bio-plastic, pasta) straws per day instead, over 1 year 36,500 straws will have been served and thrown away, ending up in landfill or the ocean. 100% of these straws will have been disposed of after a single use, meaning none were carbon neutral and the CO2, resources, materials and energy used to manufacture them are all wasted and create unnecessary pollution.
Bamboo and paper straws create higher carbon emissions than plastic straws through both land use impacts and decomposition. Studies show that the carbon footprint of PLA bioplastic straws is higher than that of plastic straws because of more wastes from manufacturing. Research has shown that paper production is more resource intensive than plastic production, using 4x water and creates 3.3x greenhouse gases versus plastic.
Bioplastic straws are misleadingly marketed as compostable, when in fact if they are disposed of in the normal rubbish bin they will have the same polluting effect as normal plastic straws- in landfill or the ocean they will last for hundreds of years, break up into microplastics which poison animals and contaminate the human food supply, soil and air.
Even straws made from biodegradable materials like paper, bamboo and pasta will not break down in landfill. All rubbish entering landfills essentially retains its original weight, volume and form as the anaerobic bugs in a landfill just don’t receive the proper balance of moisture, nutrients and temperature to biodegrade anything. To be truly environmentally friendly, we need to prevent waste ending up in landfill in the first place - especially if the waste is created after only one use!
The data shows that metal straws have a lower carbon footprint, and are therefore better for the environment than paper straws, only if they are used minimum 128 times. This is an achievable number in most bars, pubs, restaurants and cafes and depends on the number of covers and menu choices. When considering waste, metal straws are better for the environment than all disposable straws (plastic, paper, bamboo, pasta and bioplastic) as they are reused instead of being thrown away.
Production - Mining and Land Use
Unfortunately stainless steel production impacts on the environment through air emissions, wastewater contaminants, hazardous wastes, and solid wastes through both the mining and manufacturing processes.
However, the durability of stainless steel does mean these impacts are only needed once for thousands of uses. Stainless steel has a never ending lifecycle and is the most recycled material on the planet, more than all other materials combined. Steel retains an extremely high overall recycling rate, which in 2014 was 86%. This means the impact of mining and production of stainless steel is minimised per straw as it has a high recycled content, can be reused for years, and can then be recycled.
Steel use per capita worldwide is 240kg in 2019 – it’s used in toasters, cars, skyscrapers and reusable metal cutlery like forks, knives and spoons. The environmental impact of stainless steel straws is less than an everyday metal fork or knife.
In contrast, increased land-use demands for disposable straws (timber for paper straws, corn or sugarcane for bioplastic straws, wheat for pasta straws or bamboo for bamboo straws) creates greenhouse gas emissions, food security concerns and biodiversity impacts through the use of pesticides, fertilisers and other chemicals in the manufacturing process. For plastics, mining and distillation of crude oil is harmful for the environment and risks devastating oil spills. The environmental impact of the production of disposable straws (plastic, paper, bamboo, pasta and bioplastic) is never ending as they are manufactured over and over to be used only once. Unlike stainless steel, they cannot be reused or recycled, which endlessly wastes resources.
Packaging and Shipping
Over 2 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated from shipping each year. There are also inevitable CO2 emissions from delivery, which are higher for metal straws versus plastic or paper straws due to weight differences. But, again, it all comes down to reusability. The delivery CO2 for a pack of metal straws is only emitted once when it's initally sent, but because metal straws are reused thousands of times, this never needs to happen again. In contrast, if you're re-ordering packs of disposable (paper, plastic, bioplastic, pasta, bamboo) straws constantly as they are used and discarded, the CO2 emissions from delivery are repeated over and over again, having a never ending negative impact on the environment.
At SuckerStraws, we have a no-plastic packaging policy. We use low-emission and low-energy consumption fulfilment company, Fulfilmentcrowd, to undertake all of our deliveries. Fulfilmentcrowd are committed to reducing the harmful impacts of ecommerce. Read more about our partnership with them here.
With your help, SuckerStraws funds the planting of trees in these local Kenyan communities resulting in net zero carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere!
So, you can be proud to be serving your drinks with straws that are zero-waste because they are reusable AND are 100% carbon neutral. Read more about how your purchase contributes to Kenyan reforestation projects.
Reusing is clearly always better for the environment than remaking single-use disposable straws over and over. This is true for every aspect we've explored in this article- waste, carbon footprint, production and shipping. The circular economy (make and reuse) is superior to a linear economy (make, use and dispose).
Of course, using no straw is better for the environment than using a metal straw. But, often straws are required or preferred by customers- for example in crushed-ice drinks and drinks with ice, milkshakes and drinks with garnishes, or if the customer has a beard or wears lipstick. For this reason (and to help prevent theft) we recommend only giving out straws upon customer request.
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Want to know how much the different plastic straw alternatives cost your business? We've done a similar analysis based on serving 100 straws a day here.
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