Op-ed: Replacements for plastic straws have their own problems

Under a new law passed in Santa Barbara, Calif., in July, restaurant employees can face misdemeanor charges for handing out plastic straws to customers. The first offense is a written warning, but if workers are caught violating the law a second time, they can face up to six months in jail or up to a $1,000 fine.

It was the latest development in a summer that has seen a political war waged against the use of plastic straws. At the beginning of July, a new law went into effect banning the use of plastic straws and utensils by bars and restaurants within Seattle city limits. A couple of weeks later, San Francisco’s board of supervisors also unanimously approved a ban on plastic straws within that city.

Such bans are forcing restaurant owners either to abandon plastic straws altogether or switch to more expensive alternatives. While the prohibitions are based on concerns about plastic pollution, the substitutes for plastic cost substantially more without being significantly better for the environment.

Take, for example, paper straws. They can cost as much as 22 times more than plastic straws and come with their own set of environmental problems. Paper production has a much larger environmental footprint than plastic production. A recent study from the Danish Environmental Protection Agency found that the environmental impact of a standard supermarket paper bag is 43 times larger than traditional plastic bags.

Corn-based (PLA) straws are cheaper to make than paper straws, but they are still almost six times more expensive than plastic straws. PLA is marketed as a compostable plastic, but is not compostable in the traditional sense. PLA degrades in about two to three months, but only if it is processed at an industrial composting facility that continually subjects waste to heat and microbes. Otherwise, it may take just as long to decompose as traditional plastics.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.