5 things you need to know about the straw war

In July 2019, a new line of merchandise appeared on President Trump's online store. It's called "Trump Straws" and they come in a pack of 10 for $15. These red "recyclable" straws have "laser engraved" text "Trump" on them, distinguishing themselves from the "liberal paper straws" that "don't work."

Although it's not the first time Trump transformed an apolitical issue into a partisan topic, this newest addition to Trump's 2020 campaign online store sparked heated discussions immediately. 

Surprisingly, I did not see an overwhelming amount of personal attacks this time. The center of the argument was the practicality of paper straws. While some said that the paper straws contributed to significant reductions in plastic use, others genuinely complained about how these eco-friendly straws are too soft to hold drinks such as milkshakes.  

Here are five important things to know about the war around straws.

Paper straws work.

They work because the popularization and usage of paper straws reduce the production of plastic straws and that in turn reduces ocean pollution. Environmental scientists collected trash on U.S. coastlines over five years and estimated that nearly 7.5 million plastic straws are out there on American coasts. Meanwhile, only about 1% of plastic wastes are collected globally. When it comes to sustainability, paper straws work.

Many stores already abandoned plastic straws. 

Starting in 2018, many companies began to take action in eliminating plastic straws. Starbucks, for one, announced that it plans to eliminate plastic straws by 2020 around the globe. The coffee giant will provide recyclable straw-less lid instead. Other big companies such as American Airlines and Alaska airlines also said that it would provide marine-friendly paper straws. 

Paper straws are biodegradable and take less time to decompose. 

Most plastic straws are made of petroleum-based plastic, which means that they are not biodegradable when they are disposed into the environment. Then, it takes hundreds of years for them to decompose in landfills. Even for straws made of biodegradable plastics, the process of disposing will yield carbon dioxide and inorganic compounds. 

On the other hand, paper straws can decompose into the soil in 2-6 weeks. Besides, paper straws can be easily recycled and reused. The mill-processing is developed and efficient in cleaning and turning old paper products into new ones. 

Paper straws are being developed to work better.  

The fragility is the most complained feature of paper straws. While paper straws function well while holding drinks such as water and coffee, it usually cannot hold smoothies or milkshakes. Different brands of paper straws have different qualities, but they share the problem of disintegrating in the beverages too fast. That being said, there have been efforts in producing more durable paper straws. Some manufacturers developed paper straws with cellulose paper and glues, enabling durability of up to 12 hours without losing shape. 

If 12 hours are not good enough, I won't be too surprised to see even more durable paper straws out in the market. California Sen. Kamala Harris, also a Democratic presidential candidate, specifically advocated for more innovation around paper straws as an effort to ban plastics during CNN's climate town hall in September.

Paper straws work, but there are other options that work even better. 

While there are many benefits of replacing with plastic paper straws, they are still single-use consumer items. 

Besides, paper straws only solve a tiny fraction of the issue. Straws make up 0.025% of the plastic that is found in the ocean every year. Many other plastic products are in our oceans, too. While popularizing paper straws is a right step on the track, it is a true baby step toward a more sustainable consumption culture. Using a metal straw, or simply a mug is more sustainable in the long run.

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