The last straw?

Bans on plastic are simply sucking businesses towards alternatives. Whether these are recycled doesn’t seem to matter to ministers or brands. But it certainly should, says David Burrows.

In three weeks’ time a ban on plastic straws (and drinks stirrers) will come into force. Or will it? Footprint revealed in January that Defra had been briefing stakeholders that summer was a more plausible timescale. Look at the draft statutory instrument that the government laid before Parliament on March 3rd and the date most foodservice and hospitality companies have been working towards – April 6th 2020 – has been removed. Instead, the Environmental Protection (plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers) (England) Regulations 2020 will “come into force on the day after the day on which they are made”. That could still be April 6th but we don’t know.

Ministers at Defra have other things on their minds currently, but businesses have spent a huge amount of time and resources planning for this. Most have been switching to alternatives. Those who have gone down the compostable or biodegradable plastic route should be minded that the ban includes these materials. At least for now: the government could change its mind if a biodegradable standard for plastics that is “proven to have better environmental outcomes than current alternatives such as paper straws” can be established. This is far from a certainty (indeed, the government’s response to a consultation on new standards for bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics has been delayed).

The go-to straw is one made from paper. But is this really any better?

Whether the ban comes into force on April 6th or weeks later, paper straw manufacturers are set to line their pockets as brands switch. The global market for paper straws was worth over $1.6 billion (£1.28 billion) last year, but will increase at a CAGR of 13.8% between now and 2027, according to Transparency Market Research. The market for plastic and paper straws is also expected to grow from almost $4.5 billion (£3.6 billion) to over $9 billion (£7.2 billion) between now and 2025. So much for putting a stop to single-use.

Indeed, read the marketing from some of the paper straw producers and they are clearly revelling in their place as the “sustainable alternative”. “Are you a restaurateur, retailer, or wholesaler interested in making the switch from plastic to paper and helping save our marine life?” notes paper straw manufacturer Aardvark on its website. Meanwhile, Transcend Packaging has been punting out press releases to commend businesses for “taking a stand and bringing in sustainable paper straws ahead of the ban”. Showcase Cinemas are the latest to switch to the firm’s FSC-certified paper straws (unlike catering outlets like restaurants and bars, cinemas can’t keeping providing plastic straws so long as they are not visible or offered without a request from the customer).

Transcend has yet to respond to tell us whether these straws can or will be recycled or not (or accept an interview). It’s very unlikely. Another big customer, McDonald’s, which gets through 1.8m straws in the UK every day, says it’s got to grips with recycling the new paper straws but look at its in-store collection points and a recycling rate above single figures would be surprising (McDonald’s can correct us if we are wide of the mark). There was a big hoo-ha last year when The Sun found out McDonald’s straws weren’t being recycled. Transcend blamed poor infrastructure – it’s an old argument (and one used by the compostable packagers too) but it doesn’t wash.

And this is where the plastic straw ban, much like the other single-use plastic bans within the EU’s single use plastics directive, fall apart. The government has not said single-use paper straws are sustainable. “…while alternatives to plastic may have environmental impacts, we believe that the impact from plastic pollution is more detrimental”, it concluded in its summary of the straw ban consultation responses last May. In other words paper ones aren’t good but they are less bad.

But what does good look like? This is not a question ministers have asked. Indeed, they are perfectly happy to implement regulation that will simply remove one single-use item that is hard-to-recycle with another single-use item that is just as hard-to-recycle. “The ban will ensure that drinking straws sold in England are made of more environmentally friendly materials that will decompose quicker and will have low life-cycle impacts on the environment,” reads the impact assessment. (Isn’t the government’s advice on greenwashing not to use ambiguous terms like ‘environmentally-friendly’?)

Where is the analysis that paper straws fit this description? The ban will, at best, provide £10m of benefits, and at worst £5.2m. (Moving to paper straws will cost consumers somewhere between £41.3m and £69.9m and businesses £27.5m to £46.6m). Most of this comes from ‘beach well-being benefit’ and benefits to marine wildlife (though the extent of these has been questioned). That’s fine – we all know the problems presented by plastic pollution. Still, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question the alternatives. Zero production emissions are saved by switching from a plastic to a paper straw. There are some emission savings from incinerating paper straws rather than plastic ones, but the fact that both will be burned should surely have prompted someone (anyone) to stop and say: ‘Hang on – we get through 4.7 billion single-use straws so is this single-use switch really a good use of resources or circular economy thinking?’ It’s perhaps telling that the document assumes “zero recycling” for plastic straws but offers absolutely no estimate of recycling rates for paper straws.

“I think the transition away from plastic straws is actually not fast at all, especially given that the plastic industry has not actively developed a good way to recover and recycle plastic straws in the decades that they made this product,” said Ernst Worrell, a professor at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development in the Netherlands, in an interview with Wired.com: “Yet, for any alternative it is important to not make the same mistake and consider the end of life in an integrated way. Here, we need to do some learning, and maybe also remember the best straw is the one not used.”

The government should bear this in mind when it starts looking at the other single-use plastic bans it has to introduce next year. Plastic cutlery, plates and some food containers will all be eliminated as part of the EU single-use plastics directive. This doesn’t worry brands because it leaves the door open to single-use alternatives. Whether they are recycled matters not. But it certainly should.

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