Help me find statistics on drinking straw usage
November 4, 2010 8:44 AM   Subscribe

i'm giving a presentation on the negative environmental impact of drinking straws but I can't seem to find statistics on their manufacture or use anywhere. I just want to get an idea of how many straws are used every year, how much plastic that is, etc.

I know straws are a drop in the bucket compared to pop bottles or shopping bags, but they also serve 0 practical function, which is why I'm targeting them.
posted by njb to Science & Nature (18 answers total)
I have bought wonderful glass straws made by this fellow - maybe he could point you in the right direction? I agree that straws are wasteful, but there actually is at least one practical function to straws - my dentist encrouaged my to drink sugary drinks through a straw so there is less contact with my teeth.
posted by analog at 8:52 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Straws are extremely useful for people who are unable to physically hold their cups, so you may want to revise that "zero practical function" idea.
posted by crankylex at 8:55 AM on November 4, 2010 [6 favorites]

Straws also help get the rest of a drink without having to wear a face shield to protect against ice. Also just about the only way to eat a shake. A spoon is prone to drips and the handle gets sticky. If anything, the plastic shopping bags are more useless--you can bring your own bag but bringing your own straw has problems (like, you have to wash it, which negates at least some of the savings; where do you keep it; etc).
posted by DU at 8:59 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Further revising the "zero practical function" idea, straws are also useful for people who can physically hold the cup, but aren't in a position to lift it to their mouths and drink conventionally.
posted by ymendel at 9:01 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think it's funny that you're trying to find evidence to support a conclusion instead of doing research to come up with an initial conclusion.

Can you change your subject matter, or is it too late? I think disposable chopsticks is something along the same sides of thinking as your straw idea. You'll find a lot more concrete data too since it's a real issue in Japan and China.
Disposable chopsticks is as big of an issue, or more so, than plastic shopping bags.
posted by zephyr_words at 9:02 AM on November 4, 2010

the problem you are going to run in to is that there are too many manufacturers of straws... if you need a number, i'd suggest contacting mcdonalds, or another fast food chain, and see if they have a number for straws used per year... then you could extrapulate from that.
posted by fozzie33 at 9:04 AM on November 4, 2010

By googling "bulk straws", I determined that a standard unwrapped large plastic straw weights about 0.65 grams.

Don't know about manufacturing numbers, though.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 9:07 AM on November 4, 2010

posted by Salvor Hardin at 9:08 AM on November 4, 2010

I was taking a quick break, saw your query and since I'm always up for a data sleuthing challenge and I've got access to a few academic databases I took a look through GreenFILE, which focuses on environmental research.

I think the problem seems to be while there is a ton of research out there touching upon plastic in general, nothing (at least that I could find in the time I can allocate to this exercise) breaks this down by type. Most folks working in this field are looking at aggregate impact, not marginal contribution of various plastic incarnations e.g., plates, cups or straws.
posted by Mutant at 9:16 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Damn I hate it when I can't find at least some data, so I kept at it a little while longer (shoulda been working but really didn't want to do what I was doing, I'm sure you understand … )

Nothing definitive, but here's something I found in
Straw wars. By: Noronha, Charmaine, Profit, Nov2006, Vol. 25, Issue 5


WHEN ALBERT MARSHALL left the world of law for business, he was hoping to encounter new challenges and successes. Perhaps eventually to be bestowed some of the oft-desired titles, like entrepreneur of the year, company MVP or sales guru. "Straw King" definitely wasn't one of them. But, as president of Stone Straw Ltd., a plastic drinking straw and stir-stick manufacturer based in Brantford, Ont., Marshall proudly reigns."

The article goes on to note this company dominates European straw manufacturing, and discusses the problems associated with selling straws into this market: "They also want fewer straws per case, with less packaging per straw, more colourful straws and variety packs of straws, and unique packaging presentation for their straws."

Apparently Wentworth Technologies, bought Stone in 2002, and the straw division had gross revenues of $12M in 2006 (that's a lot of straws, I suspect).

I bet if you contact these folks they'll tell you more about straws than you'd ever thought possible.

Hope this helps!
posted by Mutant at 9:59 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Note that not all straws are plastic. I'd guess the environmental impact of paper straws is negligible.
posted by Rash at 11:00 AM on November 4, 2010

Why would paper straws be negligible? They still wind up in landfills.

Thank you all for your thoughts on straw usage, I have added a caveat for the physically impaired. I don't think that negates the whole argument, I mean, we don't all use wheel chairs, only the people who need them.

However, the basic point, that getting a straw with every beverage purchased at every fast food restaurant is wasteful and bad for the environment, and that the harm probably outweighs the benefits.
posted by njb at 1:32 PM on November 4, 2010

the negative environmental impact of drinking straws

I hate to be that guy, but I've worked in waste management policy, and I gotta tell you, you are barking up the wrong tree, here.

With only a few, small exceptions like Hong Kong, general (ie household) waste creation and disposal is simply not a massive environmental problem. I will no doubt attract the ire of several in saying that. I am not saying that landfills do not have their own environmental problems, or are inherently good. What I am saying is that, so far as environmental issues go, landfill is way down on the list. So far as landfills go, disposal of plastics - let alone a tiny subset of plastics - is not an issue.

Let me elaborate. In terms of space, only a few places (like Honkers) are running out. We have heaps and heaps of room to bury our garbage, and most countries are not going to run out any time soon. So there is plenty of room for garbage. Also, garbage that ends up in landfill - unlike many other methods of disposal - stays relatively put in landfill, as opposed to floating into the atmosphere via incineration, or leeching into the watershed, or polluting the oceans etc (littering on the other hand, don't get me started. I wish all countries has a Singaporean approach to littering). Counterintuitively, landfill is generally a great way of disposing garbage, which is why it's so popular all over the world.

Secondly, environmental problems within the landfill, and specifically those from plastics: Many to most environmental issues with landfill can be measured and managed quite effectively due to a combination of mature technology and knowledge in the sector. Landfills are actually really good at what they're meant to do - store general waste. Most problems come from improperly disposed of garbage, e.g asbestos and other chemical waste. There is lots of well-researched information about what causes problems in landfill and plastics - and drinking straws - generally don't make the list.

Plastic lasts for a long time, and have an unfortunate tendency to break into smaller and smaller pieces, it's true. But they're relatively inert, chemically speaking. Most plastics do not break down into other harmful chemicals like endocrine disruptors for example, and unlike other things that end up in landfill, their breakdown doesn't produce methane or other greenhouse gases.

Indeed, the main problems with plastics, is when they don't go into landfill. But you will not be able to find any data about how many straws do vs don't go there. Plastic bags - a far larger target for campaigners - still only have very limited, patchy, data pertaining to their spread from source to the general environment, as opposed to landfill. I am unaware of anything pertaining to drinking straws. Furthermore, plastics bags, six-pack holders, fishing line etc have been proven as being quite harmful once out in the general environment. There are plenty of records and research demonstrating how these things injure animals and ecosystems. The fact there is nothing about this pertaining to drinking straws means it's more than likely that they are not a significant problem. Because there are thousands of people researching and publishing on this. Lots of organisations and people have strong vested interests in calling out materials that cause problems in the waste stream, and straws are most definitely not on the list.

I hope this illustrates how seemingly straightforward things can have a far more complex policy background than initially appears. This is why strong government departments are so important to effective policy development; these are complex systems and they require both expertise and knowledge to engage with effectively.

The chopsticks example above, for example. In Japan, there is an organisation devoted to using wood harvested from native forests in necessary maintenance. To replace the non-sustainable Chinese importated chopsticks. Interesting stuff.

What I'm saying is that just because there's a lot of something, doesn't mean it's a destructive or bad thing. Or that there's a lot of it, compared to other things with a far larger impact.
posted by smoke at 4:02 PM on November 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

Straws are also extremely useful for the countless people who have sensitive teeth, fillings, etc. (Please put enough thought and research into your work; it doesn't help pro-environmental/sustainability efforts to go forth with easy targets built in for the many eager attackers. :)) Good luck with your presentation.
posted by wintersweet at 6:12 PM on November 4, 2010

So we've established that there are many actual practical uses for drinking straws, and smoke's point about landfill is well made (and well taken): having travelled in at least one country where black plastic bags were ploughed, presumably inches deep, into the soil of every field, I agree that (i) there are bigger things to worry about and (ii) landfill has its virtues.

Nonetheless, the overall environmental impact of disposable plastic drinking straws is probably not negligible, because of the carbon emissions arising from their production, in astronomical volume, and distribution, as a relatively bulky commodity that takes up a lot of space on the truck relative to its weight and value. Nothing compared to the petrol that's burned bringing people their bottled water, but a measurable carbon cost for not much social good.

A properly-instituted carbon tax would presumably put a small price-tag--like, ¢1--on individual drinking straws. This would dissuade casual use for immediate disposal, or encourage the purchase of reusable ones (like the fun curly things in the shape of a treble clef we had when I was a kid), without imposing an onerous financial burden on anyone who felt they needed one. Though that question would come under the wider political debate over the coming years about the just social distribution of the financial burden of moving to a low-carbon economy (assuming that we do, actually, do this; if we don't, the political debate will presumably be about the just, or more likely unjust, social distribution of environmental hardship).

This doesn't bring the OP any figures (sorry!), but it might help assess where the actual environmental burden lies.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 10:19 PM on November 4, 2010

This debate would be helped, either way, if we could dig up hard numbers, like I initially asked for.
posted by njb at 6:56 AM on November 5, 2010

There are no numbers. You need to find a better argument.
posted by smoke at 4:38 PM on November 5, 2010

njb -- "if we could dig up hard numbers, like I initially asked for."

Well, I gave you the contact details for Wentworth Technologies, the company that according to Noronha (2006) dominates the European market for straws.

You've got to show a little initiative; sometimes is like that, all you get is a pointer to the information you're looking for. Othertimes someone's got the data at their finger tips. I looked through multiple databases and, as I previously mentioned, its doesn't seem as though anyone reports straws separately, everyone reports aggregate production of plastic.

That being said, if you contact the 'straw men' (pun intended) I directed you to, I'm sure they'll be able to tell you what their annual European production is. A simple extrapolation based on a few assumptions that, once again, you'll have to make (% of European market Wentworth has, size of the European market for straws compared to North American / Asian) and you'll have a reasonable idea of annual global straw production.

To be honest, I don't see the exercise taking anymore than five minutes.
posted by Mutant at 1:32 AM on November 6, 2010

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