Paper vs Plastic Straws: A Comparison

July 23, 2020
Paper vs Plastic Straws: A Comparison

The war on plastic is prevalent in countries all over the world today. In Europe, findings from the latest Eurobarometer survey on environmental waste found that 87% of Europeans were concerned about the environmental impact of plastic. Some 74% of people surveyed are also worried about the impact of plastics on their health. 

It’s clear to see that alternatives to plastics are one way of meeting the modern customer’s wants and needs in terms of product quality and responsibility. But what happens when we look specifically at paper straws vs plastic straws? Are paper straws really a better alternative to plastic straws? 

Customer Experiences: Paper Straws vs Plastic Straws

The experience of using paper straws:

Certain kinds of paper straws have received bad press because they can become soggy and limp when placed in liquid. Fortunately, these tend to be the cheaper, mass-produced versions – often made in Chinese factories – and there are better alternatives out there to keep you and your customers happy. 

It is possible to find paper straws that are crafted from high-quality paper and water-based adhesives. Leading glue manufacturers (such as Henkel) produce low-migration adhesives, meaning they’re 100% free of plasticizers, phthalates (compounds used in making PVC and vinyl), benzoates and triacetin – all of which are harmful to human health and the environment. The glue also has an impressively high heat-resistance, meaning paper straws can work very well with even the hottest of beverages. 

When we look closely at paper straws vs plastic straws, there’s also the issue of how it changes the taste of the beverage. Plastic, for example, is understood to negatively alter the taste of hot drinks – because the petroleum in the plastic can leak into the liquid. 

The experience of using plastic straws:

The experience of using plastic straws is well-established and familiar to the vast majority of the population, even if they’d rather prefer a more environmentally-friendly alternative. Many people have grown up with plastic straws as the norm, and therefore don’t question the experience.

Indeed, there is still a small but necessary demand for plastic straws in medical fields – in hospitals and pharmacies. For example, some people who live with disabilities still need to use plastic or metal straws for medical reasons. In the UK, the NHS alone purchased 15 million plastic straws in 2018. However, there are now plans to reduce the number of plastic straws used in hospitals and care facilities. 

As a result, there is an increasingly high demand for paper straws in hospitals, which can be given to patients who aren’t living with a disability. However, these must be high-quality paper straws that meet hygiene standards, can withstand heat, and will survive liquid for prolonged periods of submersion. 

Legal Implications of Drinking Straw Materials

Single-use plastics will be banned in the EU by 2021. This includes, but isn’t limited to, plastic straws, stirrers, single-use plastic cutlery, and plates. All EU member states are required to follow this new legislation or risk fines and, in some serious non-compliance cases, criminal charges. 

The Recyclability of Drinking Straws

Recycling plastic straws:

People find it difficult to recycle plastics properly, no matter how good their intentions are. This is because most plastic straws are made from Polypropylene, a plastic which is very difficult to recycle, as many local authorities simply don’t provide the right services or facilities to do so. 

Moreover, even if a local authority does provide the right facilities, plastic straws are often overlooked accidentally as they’re smaller and it’s easier to lose them during the recycling process. Plastic straws made from polypropylene are classed as a type five plastic on the plastic resin scale, which can affect the ease and accessibility of how and where you can recycle it. 

Recycling paper straws: 

Paper straws are fully recyclable, although councils and local authorities need to improve their current recycling programmes to take advantage. There has been recent speculation that McDonald’s paper straws can’t be recycled, although this claim is unfounded as it was later discovered that paper straws can be recycled and that, instead, there needs to be improvements in the UK’s recycling infrastructure. 

Better yet, biodegradable paper straws can be composted – either at a processing plant or even in the consumer’s own garden as a mulch.

Impact on nature and wildlife

How plastic straws impact nature:

More than 80% of litter in oceans, rivers, beaches and seas consists of various plastics, according to findings released by the European Commission. This is due to the fact that plastics have a decomposition rate of around 200 years. Plastic straws are also a real threat to wildlife, as marine creatures such as whales, seals and seabirds mistake them for food. 

The straws can block their digestive systems or suffocate them, causing unnecessary suffering and death, which negatively impacts the food chain and ecosystems all over the world. Humans are also affected by this, as plastic can end up in seafood such as fish and shellfish. 

How paper straws impact nature:

Paper straws decompose within two months on land and six months in saltwater. If animals accidentally ingest a biodegradable FSC-approved paper straw, this is deemed much safer as they are more digestible for animals – thus they aren’t as harmful, nor do they impact the food chain so drastically. 

Technology and Manufacturing of Paper and Plastic Straws

Manufacturing paper straws:

The structure of paper straws also plays an essential role in their longevity. Opting for three-ply spiralled paper straws rather than one-ply paper straws has many advantages. One-ply paper straws lose up to 80-90% of their strength when exposed to liquids for thirty minutes or more. Spiralled paper straws are structurally sound, lasting up to 3 hours when immersed in liquids. 

Spiralled paper straws can be produced in high volumes in a very short amount of time – specifically, 450 paper straws per minute by our machines at Tembo Paper, with less than 2% glue used for each straw. In fact, the SPI Glue Application system means the glue is applied more precisely than ever before and automatically rejects paper straws that don’t fit with the accurate specifications. 

When we look at paper straws vs plastic straws, the three-ply paper straws boast an “anti-fizziness” feature where over-carbonation is minimised in fizzy drinks. When it comes to consumers, paper straws are designed to last but without the damaging impact on the environment. 

Manufacturing plastic straws:

Manufacturing plastic straws is inherently messier and involves more environmental risk. Plastic is made from oil, which is extracted from the ground and  piped thousands of miles to refineries. Of course, these pipes routinely burst due to excavation accidents, weather, corrosion and other factors. 

This means oil can affect people, property and animals – as well as bodies of water. Oil pipeline accidents are prevalent, with the equivalent of 200 barrels spilled every day in the USA alone – according to findings by Richard Stover, PhD, at the Center for Biological Diversity. 

When it comes to manufacturing plastic straws, factories are greatly contributing to this cycle. Polypropylene is made by stringing the molecules of propylene gas together – so it requires a lot of molecules to form the plastics you see used in plastic straws. With a large number of molecules comes more chance of creating waste. Plastic resin can be contaminated or overheated, so it has to be thrown away – and it’s not like this plastic is particularly easy to recycle. 

Summary: Paper vs Plastic Drinking Straws

Paper straws vs plastic straws shouldn’t be a particularly controversial debate. Even though there is work to be done to improve paper products themselves, and the infrastructure that supports a circular economy, the impact of paper straws on the environment is far less harmful than plastic. Businesses can take environmental responsibility seriously, build a positive reputation, and demonstrate a commitment to sustainability by introducing paper straws instead of using plastic straws in their products. 

Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash