Sunday, April 22, 2018

The last (single-use) straw?

Since Earth Day fell on a Sunday this year, we were able to celebrate it by going to our town's annual Earth Day event, always held on the nearest Sunday at the environmental center. The theme this year was water, so in addition to the usual stuff—music, food, booths providing information about beekeeping and bike lanes and native plants—there were all kinds of displays about water conservation and pollution, especially from "microplastics." And one particular form of plastic waste a lot of them seemed to have their eye on was a ubiquitous item that, unlike many single-use plastic items, can't be recycled: drinking straws.

One enthusiastic volunteer buttonholed me and loaded me up with three separate fliers and a paper drinking straw, which she described as "much better" than a plastic straw. Now, I happened to know that paper was once the standard material for drinking straws, but I'd never actually encountered one before; when I asked the volunteer where you could buy them, she didn't know. Another booth was passing out leaflets with statistics about plastic use and suggestions for eliminating plastic waste from your daily life, and alongside the usual recommendations you see all the time (tote bags, mesh produce bags, reusable water bottles) it suggested "metal straws/reusable straws" as an alternative to single-use plastic straws. Once again, I asked the kid at the booth where it was possible to find these, and he suggested Target—which came as a surprise to me, since I don't think of that as a store that's high on sustainability.

But when I got home, I searched the Target site for "reusable straws," and I did indeed find a couple of of products. These Bubba Plastic Reusable Straws ($4 for a set of 5) are made of durable silicone and have a wider diameter (like the ones you get with a cup of bubble tea) to make them easier to clean. The similar Silikids straws ($6 for a pack of 6) have similar construction, but come in varied lengths to accommodate cups of different sizes. (Incidentally, I also found some of the paper straws here and discovered why they're no longer popular: they're much, much more expensive than the plastic ones. Paper straws cost around $3 for a pack of 20, while plastic ones were only $1 for a pack of 100.)

So, as an ecofrugal person who enjoys an occasional Frappuccino, I should definitely go out and invest in a set of these reusable silicone straws, right? Well, maybe, but there are a couple of things that give me pause. For one thing, although I have certainly used my share of plastic drinking straws in my time, I've never actually bought any. They always come into my possession when I buy a cold drink while out and about, and there's no way to drink it without a straw. So what I invariably do is take a straw, then take it home, rinse it thoroughly (holding it directly under the faucet so the water flows straight through it), and reuse it. In the top section of one of our kitchen drawers, we have a whole assortment of drinking straws in various sizes and colors: green ones from Starbucks, orange-and-red striped ones from Dunkin Donuts, translucent ones from Quik Check, and a few big fat ones from places that sell bubble tea. Whenever I need a straw at home, I just grab one of these, and when I'm done with it I attempt to rinse it and reuse it yet again. I can get at least a few uses out of each one before it becomes too battered to clean properly.

Thus, keeping a set of reusable straws in a drawer at home wouldn't actually do very much to reduce my disposable-straw use. For them to do me any good, I'd actually have to carry one around in my purse, so that I'd have it with me whenever I happened to get the urge to stop somewhere for a cold drink. But that raises a new set of questions:
  • How would I carry it in my purse? If I leave it floating around loose in there, it won't be very clean when I want to use it. Would it fit in the little the pocket designed to hold pens? Or could I wrap it up in something?
  • Would these wider straws fit through the plastic lids on a standard disposable drink cup? If not, they'd be impractical for use with the iced drinks at Dunkin Donuts (though they'd still fit through the wider, domed lid of a Frappiccino).
  • Conversely, would they be wide enough to accommodate the tapioca "bubbles" in a cup of bubble tea? (At least one reviewer at Target says the quarter-inch Bubba straws are not.)
  • Could I get the used straws home to clean them without making a mess? It works okay with the narrower plastic straws, but would the wider openings on these silicone ones be more inclined to drip?
  • Finally, what would I do with my current collection of plastic straws? Just throw them out? Or save them in case we ever need one to fix a leaking toilet chain?  
This final question made it clear that, even if I do eventually decide to invest in a reusable straw, it clearly makes sense to use up my assortment of plastic ones first. There's nothing ecofrugal about throwing them away and buying something new to take their place. So the most logical thing to do in the short term, I concluded, would be to take one of these old plastic ones and stash that in my purse, ready to use if I need it. As a bonus, doing this will help me figure out the best possible way to tote around a drinking straw, so if I finally run through my collection of old straws and need to buy one, I'll already know the best way to carry it.

When I tried this, I found that a regular-length drinking straw is, in fact, too long to fit in my purse's pen pocket, so for now I've improvised a case for it from—I kid you not—a pennywhistle. The whistle fits neatly in the bottom of the purse, and it will protect the straw from getting crushed. It takes a bit of shaking to get the straw loose from the whistle, but it can be done. Now I just have to remember, next time I stop for a drink, that it's there.

Of course, this solution won't work if I eventually get one of the silicone straws, since the whistle is too narrow to hold those. But at least it will serve as a proof of concept.
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