Alternative straws: the long and the short of it

After footage went viral of a baby turtle struggling to breathe because a plastic straw was trapped in its nose, it didn’t take people long to denounce plastic straws. But are reusable or collapsible straws the answer?

“I think that people are trying to be aware of their effects on the environment and the collapsible straw is a very convenient way to do it,” says Aaliyah Kathrada, founder of Sip Conscious, which “provides an eco-friendly alternative to the sin that is plastic straws”, according to its website.

Kathrada launched what she calls a social enterprise in early 2018 “to assist with the conundrum of plastic straws”.

Sip Conscious initially sold stainless steel straws — in a range of colours and thicknesses — and, late last year, also began stocking collapsible steel straws.

Retailing at R160 each and coming with its own cleaning brush in a keyringed box, Kathrada says sales of collapsible straws have been strong so far. “People prefer collapsible straws, because they’re easy to just pop into your bag. It doesn’t take up space, and you can clean it easily.”

Kathrada says that she decided to look into bringing collapsible straws to the market after seeing the kinds of straw alternatives people had.

“They are more expensive than the metal ones, which start at R30 for a single straw; a two-straw set with bag selling for R125. The collapsible straws are newer, so we put a lot of work in to market these. But they’re so convenient, and it makes people realise that it doesn’t take too much from you to take your straws out and practise eco-friendliness,” says Kathrada who, for now, sources the straws internationally.

Cape Town-based health writer and metal-straw-user Sian Ferguson says that the focus on straws has had a negative impact on the anti-plastic movement: “Many people have decided to refuse the plastic straw, without looking at other ways to reduce plastic waste,” she says.

The Mail & Guardian reported earlier this month that South Africans produce two kilograms of plastic waste per person a day, second only to the United States, and 56% of the waste we produce is mismanaged and makes its way into the natural environment.

But is the reusable straw just eco-trendiness? What about helping to save the planet by not using straws at all?

Plastic straws and their role in environmental sustainability remain an issue of global concern. Writing for the Singapore Women’s Weekly, Lauren Ong says that, just like any other product made from natural or anthropogenic resources, “metal straws come at an environmental cost. There is no one item that is absolutely more sustainable than the other.

“Most items leave a carbon footprint and hamper our ecosystem in one way or another anyway. We can choose to drink straight from the cup instead of using any type of straw to consume our drinks.”

“2018 was the year of the metal straw because it was a year about small, superficial battles, not big, meaningful ones,” writes John DeVore in the Observer. “Virtue signals, not actual virtue.”

Ferguson says that although making efforts to use alternative solutions in order to preserve the environment — including complete abstinence — is applaudable, it is also important to stay mindful of people who rely on plastic straws in their everyday life.

“Many disabled people rely on straws to be able to drink properly,” she says. “By calling for straws to be banned, we ignore this fact.”

Aaisha Dadi Patel
Aaisha Dadi Patel
Aaisha Dadi Patel cut her teeth at The Daily Vox in 2014, and now works in a freelance capacity. She's written about everything from politics to polar bears, with particular interests in gender and Islam. She holds an MA in Media Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand.
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