The Bag Lady: Suck it up and just say no plastic straws

OK, we’ve muddled through discussions of recyclable materials including glass, plastic, aluminum, light bulbs, batteries, hazardous waste, plastic film, etc. — now what about plastic drinking straws? Once we started looking at all of the plastic that comes into contact with our food, we eventually realized that we’re surrounded by straws too. In the 1900s with the advent of machinery, the ability to automate spiral-wound straws opened the door to the invention of plastic straws.

Plastic straws are generally made from polypropylene (#5) or polyethylene (#2), which are both recyclable materials. Unfortunately, however, straws often don’t make it to the recycling bin. Taking into consideration the fact that 50 million fast food meals are served in the United States each day, it can be estimated that Americans use at least 18 billion plastic straws per year from fast food restaurants alone! This figure is unquestionably very low since other sources of plastic straws, such as those handed out at restaurants, purchased at grocery stores for home use, or stuck to the sides of juice boxes, are not even included in this estimation. Remember, plastic does not biodegrade, so you can imagine the sheer number of straws filling up the landfills! Off to our landfills straws go…and waterways and, eventually, our oceans where large pockets of plastic soups threaten the food chain. In fact, among items washed up on beaches, straws are one of the top five items most frequently found, and in some areas they are in the top two-three.

Enter 9-year-old Milo Cress, founder of “Be Straw Free” and a man on a mission. Milo’s research suggests that 500 million plastic straws per day are used in the United States. He felt that this was way too many straws so he and his mom started “Be Straw Free,” a web-based campaign that encourages citizens to pledge to reduce consumption of single-use disposable plastic straws, and also urges restaurants to distribute fewer plastic straws. The goal of his organization is for it to become standard for restaurants to offer straws to customers instead of putting them in drinks automatically. “Don’t get me wrong,” Milo cautions skeptics, “I’m not trying to ban straws. What I’m trying to do is get straws not to go into the landfill and not to pollute our environment.” So, dear reader, like Milo I am suggesting that the next time you order a soft drink you consider the possibility of going “sans straw.” If you do decide that a straw is necessary (and that’s okay too!) please be sure to recycle the straw.

I would also like to report on my backyard composting progress. I first talked to you about this project (lifestyle change) last May. In the nine months that I have been actively and conscientiously composting, the end product has been incredibly significant! My gray trash bin only needs to be put out for trash pick-up every other week…And sometimes I can go three weeks between trash pick-ups! The amount of waste our family alone has diverted from the landfill is way beyond what I anticipated our individual household impact would be. With 5,605 households in the city of Solana Beach, a truly significant contribution toward landfill diversion is possible if each household in our community were to participate in backyard composting. I simply cleared a spot under my kitchen sink for a food scrap receptacle which fills up every other day or so to be emptied into the larger bin in the backyard. These backyard composting bins, called “Soil Savers”, are available for $89 at the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation (formerly Solana Center for Recycling) in Encinitas. Their phone number is: (760) 436-7986. In addition to being “environmentally correct,” it is really fascinating to see your kitchen waste turn magically into soil!

Remember to try to be a “whole house” recycler. I discovered (and I bet I am not alone!) that I am a terrific “downstairs recycler.” Before I added recycling bins upstairs in my office and bedroom I used to try to “set aside” recyclables upstairs to be carried downstairs to the recycling bin in my kitchen. Empty shampoo bottles, empty soap boxes, empty toilet paper rolls and other miscellaneous recyclables many times were not getting recycled because I didn’t have easy access to a bin and rather they would be thrown away. We now have four recycling bins (five including a separate bin for plastic film) and pretty much everything that’s recyclable finds its way to the appropriate container!

It’s easy to be responsible. A little (behavioral) adjustment here and a little adjustment there will go a long way. Consider “going strawless”, making your own dirt and sprinkling recycling bins throughout your house. You’ll be amazed at how these changes in your habits will add up to noticeable changes around you. Once you start to see results you will really feel great about your choices and their environmental impact. I sure do!

Please send any questions, comments or ideas to: Thank you, again, for your interest in the ideas explored in the Bag Lady column.