Are biodegradable straws, or any other packaging for that matter, really better for the environment than their reusable replacements? Keren Osler, business analyst and passionate environmentalist, has some opinions and has conducted some experiments. She also has a cat called Aurora who makes a guest appearance later on.
Why the need for biodegradable plastic?
Personally, my view on the whole matter is that if you just drank beer then you wouldn’t need a straw. But alas. We must drink other things.
We all know plastic straws are bad, but the problem isn’t the straw itself, it’s the plastic polymer we use to make them. Because of this, we’ve seen a wide variety of new products. Reusable ones made from bamboo, metal and glass, and single-use replacements like paper and biodegradable straws made from a more environmentally friendly polymer called polyactic acid (PLA).
While reusable options are the ideal choice, there’s an obvious drawback: people need to remember to bring them along. Paper straws are pretty useless, hence the rise of the single-use PLA biodegradable straw.
PLA straws are positioned as being made from plants that can break down in the environment. They are made from naturally occurring renewable plant material like corn starch or sugar cane. All these green technology buzz words make for a great product, right? Maybe not.
The claims about PLA straws
When PLA straws first came out companies claimed they were 100% biodegradable and compostable. Under ideal conditions they would disappear completely within 2 to 4 months. Under not ideal conditions (like just being in the environment or a landfill) PLA straws would take 2 years to completely disappear.
Unfortunately new information has come to light. When they said “break down in the environment” companies actually meant “industrial composting conditions”. For PLA to break down it needs to be kept at a temperature of 60˚C for 10 consecutive days, meaning these straws would need to be sent to a specialised composting facility. So while they’re not as bad as their plastic counterparts (which can take up to 200 years to decompose), PLA biodegradable straws that end up in a landfill aren’t as great as we thought.
So how biodegradable are they really? I decided to find out for myself before I started using them. The experiment was simple – I buried a ‘biodegradable’ straw in the pot of my mother’s favourite plant knowing that this gets compost and water regularly.
Was my mother happy about this? – No. Has she given up fighting me because of years of my experiments? – Yes.
I figured that the experimental conditions would not be perfect so I could not expect to see results within 4 months. If not completely gone within 2 years, at the very least the straw should be somewhat degraded.
Guess what? That was two years ago. This is what my straw looks like now. If I saw any degradation I would be happy, but the only change is that the straw is quite brittle and cracked easily, so it will likely make microplastics. Which is what any plastic straw would do under the same conditions. For me this is enough to conclude that biodegradable straws are not currently the solution.
I have since put the straw into an EcoBrick to make sure no turtles were harmed in the making of this article.
Some good news
During research for this article, I found that tighter regulations have been put in place to govern what can legally be considered biodegradable.
I am also currently in the process of conducting an experiment on another PLA biodegradable straw brand that claims to adhere to these new regulations – #sorrymom.
I’ll keep you updated when that experiment comes to fruition.
Bonus cat photo
As a way of thanking you for making it to the end of this article, here is a picture of my cat sitting on my laptop. Her name is Aurora – no relation – and she’s the best.