A recent article in “Plastic News”, June 24, 2019, was discussing the issue of plastic straws. Should the plastic straw be replaced with paper ones? Mr. Loepp states correctly that plastic straws are both difficult and expensive to recycle. Moreover, one should note that recycling is getting harder and harder to do as fewer municipalities are doing so. The reason is that the costs for recycling are increasing, as China is no longer taking our waste materials. The result is that cities, such as Stamford, Conn., who used to be paid $95,000 for recycled materials, will be paying $700,000/year. Richland, Washington, is now paying $122/ton for its recycling when last year it was paid $16/ton. Many cities across the US are suspending recycling. Most plastics end up in landfills, as it is the easiest way to dispose of them and all other trash. Consequently, it would be a benefit to choose a biodegradable plastic that is designed to break down in landfills and, most importantly, is certified to do so. Oxo or oxy degradables need high heat or direct sunlight in order to break down. (They are certified ASTM 6954-04.) As neither of these conditions are found in landfills, they are not an option. Corn based plastics or other plant-based plastics are also a poor choice. (They are certified ASTM 6400.)They are compostable and require disposal in commercial or municipal composts where there is high heat, moisture, and aeration. Few people have access to these sites. The real option for straws is one made from a landfill biodegradable plastic that breaks down in landfills where the majority of trash ends up. This film interacts with the biota, which enables it to degrade. (It is certified ASTM 5511 and ASTM 5526, the certifications for landfill biodegradable plastic.)
Recently there have been conversations that paper straws could be an alternative. The options of paper vs. plastic straws are shortsighted. We live in a disposable society. The largest portion of solid waste in US landfills is paper and paperboard products. These items make up 31% of the trash put into landfills in 2008 according to the 2008 EPA figures. (This is 39.12 tons of paper and corrugated paper.) Newspapers, the most degradable materials of this sort, can take up to 50 years to decompose. Dr. Rathje of the University of Arizona dug up newspapers that were 35 years old and were readable. Newspapers dumped at a New York landfill were found almost intact after 50 years according to the paper “Global Spec”. Plastics, in comparison, take up 12% of landfill waste at 6.52 tons. Only 1.5% of all petroleum used in the US per year ends up as plastic according to the US Energy Information Administration. (However, please note that most plastics are made from natural gas in the US.) Straws made with landfill biodegradable plastic will degrade in landfills and can be recycled. They need no special handling. This is the best answer to paper and plastic problems now facing our environment.