PLA Straws: 5 Serious Problems While You Slurp

When you’re adopting a new eco-friendly policy, there’s a difference between changes that actually matter for our planet’s health and changes that just look good on paper.

Many food and hospitality businesses in the past years have ditched the use of plastic straws for several alternatives which claim to be less damaging to the environment, using materials such as paper, metal, and even pasta in their straws. But none of these are close to being good, long-lasting solutions to our society’s problem with single-use plastics.

Instead of preserving Earth’s efforts at reforestation, paper straws would only cut down trees at faster rate. Paper, of course, has to be manufactured from trees. On the other hand, metal has to be mined, and a metal straw is a serious physical hazard. And the gluten in a pasta straw might not be the healthiest choice, and it obviously makes drinks taste funny.

The risk of PLA straws is more insidious due to its public image as a smart, ‘carbon-neutral’ and single-use plastic alternative. It has somehow snuck itself as the new drinking straw of choice for restaurants, hotels, and other businesses around the world.

In the search for good, biodegradable straws, take a look at a few facts on PLA straws to see how they aren’t as good as we’d like to believe.

PLA straws don’t decompose as well as you’d think.

The PLA in PLA straws stands for polylactic acid, one of the most common bioplastics that are available today. A bioplastic is a plastic made from biomass; in this case, PLA comes from the fermented starch of crops such as sugar cane and corn, and even algae.

It’s easy to think that a bioplastic can decompose like any dead plant part, but PLA is compostable, not biodegradable. But in a landfill or anywhere that’s not a specialized treatment facility, PLA bioplastic don’t degrade as quickly as organic matter. In fact, analysts from the Smithsonian say they can take 100 to 1,000 years to decompose naturally. That’s how long regular plastics will last, too.

That means once you throw a PLA straw away, it’ll sit in limbo for a couple thousand years as its slowly-deteriorating materials find their way into aquatic life, for instance, as well as the water supply for many coastal communities.

The recycling industry find PLA straws a nuisance.

Obviously, it now seems thoughtless to think a PLA straw is something you can chuck anywhere. You might think they’re still a viable alternative if they’re just properly disposed at the end of use.

The everyday person getting a PLA straw with their drink on the way to work or school might consider them an eco-friendly substitute, which is only correct if they’re disposed in highly specialized composting facilities which are only found in select sites in every country.

Recycling PLA turns it into biomass, but it needs to be composed first. The composting process for a bioplastic like PLA takes up to 10 days of non-stop heating at 60 degrees Celsius. Ten days! And they still have to suffer another trip to another industrial plant for final processing.

Operators in the recycling field hate PLA straws due to the special treatment they need at every step, from unique segregation, long composting times, and limited recycling value.

The recycling industry needs a hand in fighting plastic waste. The best biodegradable straws need to be as recyclable as potato skins or banana peels. They shouldn’t last longer than literal nations.

PLA straws just as damaging to our wildlife as plastic straws.

It might no longer come as a surprise that PLA straws are as harmful to flora and fauna as typical straws. PLA bioplastics have virtually forever to get lodged into the mouths of fishes, birds, forest animals, and even pets.

This goes double for endangered animals trying to get by, and we at The Happy Turtle can’t, in good conscience, contribute to the choking death of more precious creatures like turtles every day.

Polylactic acid is also, well, an acid. As it dissolves little by little, it raises the acidity of its environment, which plays havoc to seas and soil nutrition alike, causing marine life to die, algae to bloom on horrifying scales, and certain young plants to wither.

Disposing PLA straws requires specialized facilities.

As we’ve mentioned before, the use of PLA straws adds a tremendous burden to an already over-taxed recycling and disposal system. Your community could be kilometres away from the nearest composting facility, which means potentially thousands of kilograms of PLA material are either left to pollute swathes of your countryside or town.

Quality compostable straws shouldn’t be picky in how they’re treated and recycled. The mistake with PLA bioplastics is that it’s still fundamentally a plastic. That it comes

More harmful emissions are released into the air during PLA straw production.

Polylactic acid, like many bioplastics, is made from acres and acres of corn and other staple crops. It seems economical at first to find a use for all that biomass, as PLA  supporters tout that the straws produce fewer CO2 emissions than regular plastics.

What is conveniently ignored is, again, that bioplastics end up being worse for the environment in the long run. PLA bioplastics eventually go to landfills, failing to decompose properly, but releasing large quantities of methane. Methane, like CO2, is a greenhouse gas, only 23 times more damaging to the atmosphere.

Conclusion

It’s frustrating that, with all the evidence of PLA straws being incredibly harmful for the ecosystem, many businesses and restaurants see no other option for eco-friendly, compostable straws.

In the lush farms and coasts of Vietnam, we at The Happy Turtle have succeeded in fashioning better biodegradable straws.

Using sustainable potato and cassava starches in a process that’s 100% free of harmful chemicals, as well as being completely vegan and gluten-free, Happy Turtle’s plant-based drinking straws are already making all the difference.

Our straws have been used in assisting natural preservation initiatives in Vietnam caring for sea turtles, as well as making drinking water safer in Lebanon.

In these communities, there’s no actual need to send off these compostable straws to any facility. Once you’re done slurping, chuck the straw in a bin and it’ll degrade naturally in three months at most.

It’s time to take a stand against harmful PLA straws being the next big thing in eco-friendly trends. Indeed, a better biodegradable straw is already here.