by Rebecca Rockefeller
We’re not against straws; it’s undeniably fun to drink through a straw, they’re useful for bedridden people, and there are all sorts of projects and reuses for straws. So why a week focused on straws? Because single use plastic straws are one of the most common plastic items we find on our beaches and in our watersheds. We humans might like to drink from straws, but other creatures don’t do so well when they eat pieces of our plastic straws that they’ve mistaken for their regular food.
Straws have their own ancient and modern history: The oldest known straw, made from gold and lapis lazuli, came from a 3,000 BCE Sumerian tomb along with a drawing of men drinking beer from a jar using what look like straws. Closer to today, the bendable straw was invented in the 1930’s by a father whose young daughter was struggling to drink her fountain parlor milkshake through a straight straw. He used a screw and a piece of dental floss to create the first articulated bendable paper straw at home, then founded a company to mass produce his invention. His first order came not from a soda shop or restaurant but from a hospital where nurses were looking for ways to help bedridden patients drink more easily.
We have tips on going without and reducing your use of single-use straws below, along with links to durable and compostable straws that are our Trash Backwards writers’ favorites (these are personal recommendations, not paid for in any way by the companies that produce them). To wrap it all up, we have a list of ways to reuse the single-use plastic straws that are already floating around our world.
Send us an innovative, durable plastic-free alternative to single use straws, or a creative reuse for old plastic straws and we’ll add it to our growing list. The more viable ideas we have for new life for old plastic straws, the better for us all.
REDUCE YOUR USE
- Lips, the original straw! Give this a try: The next time you’re looking at a full glass of something delicious and thirst-quenching, skip the straw and put your lips to the rim to take a nice old sip. Give your lips a nice smack and ask yourself if that didn’t feel even more rewarding than a sip through a plastic straw would have.
- Glass straws from Glass Dharma are a durable and beautiful plastic-free option. They’re dishwasher safe, won’t freeze to your lips when you’re slurping up a smoothie, they’re made in the USA, and each comes with a lifetime replacement guarantee in case of breakage (my family hasn’t managed to break one yet, and we’ve been using ours for almost two years now).
- Paper straws are making a comeback. Aardvark makes sturdy paper straws (packaged in paper wrappers) in a variety of sizes – You can slurp your favorite drinks up then compost the straws and their wrappers.
- Grow your own straws!Perennial fennel, when the stems are mature enough, are beautiful summertime straws with added flavor.
REPURPOSE AND REUSE
Plastic straws don’t need to go into the trash, headed for a landfill or incinerator. Try one of these reuses – But please, only attempt these activities with straws that you’ve found or that have come your way unbidden; no new plastic straws, please! I promise, there are plenty in existence to go around, and they’re easy to find underfoot almost everywhere. If you have a reuse for plastic straws that isn’t featured here, please let us know – We’ll add it to the list to create the best New Life for Old Plastic Straws list around.
- 1. Sycamore Stirrings has a tutorial for a reusable educational shape building set using straws and pipe cleaners.
- 2. Mix up a batch of home-made polymer, aka “gack”, “glurch” “oobleck”, and “flubber” – Let the polymer settle into a flat pancake on your play surface, slip one end of a straw through the goo, hold the edges down and puff to create shifting bubbles.
- 3. TinkerLab will teach you how to build breath-powered rockets from straws, paper, and a bit of tape (we recommend reusing produce stickers as colorful tape). These simple rockets have surprising speed and range that delight people of all ages.
- 4. Trim your straws into pieces to make lovely beads. Use your beads for necklaces (a big hit with young kids working on fine motor skills), or for garlands to adorn the walls and windows during your next party, a special tree outside for a summer party, or your Christmas tree come December. Between uses, wrap your garland around a hanger and stash it in a closet to keep it fresh and colorful for years to come.
- 5. Keep a handful of straws in your arts and crafts stash. They’re great tools for blowing watercolor paints across wet and dry paper, for adding texture to playdough or clay, for printing tiny circles with tempera paint or ink pads, and much more.
- 6. Save a strong straw in a kitchen drawer for strawberry season – Pop the hulls out of fresh berries by inserting the straw through the center of each berry’s bottom and pushing up – The green top and inner hull will pop neatly off.
- 7. Collect up all the lost straws hiding on the ground in your neighborhood, give them a good wash, and make yourself a beautiful light. If you’re rich in old straws, try the large pendant with directions from Allison of The 3 R’s blog.
- 8. Don’t have quite that many straws but you still want a light fixture to shine your reuse skills out? Check out the white straw hanging light at The 3 R’s blog. Give it a go in all white straws, or make up a colorful version.
- 9. I followed the directions at Dancing in a Field of Tansy and turned a clean old straw into totally tubular travel-sized packets of my favorite first aid ointments.
- 10. Stick a collection of straws of various diameters in your tool box – They’re great for protecting cords and strings that run through wood and other materials – We’ve got one protecting the rope that opens our gate’s latch; the straw keeps it sliding freely through its wooden hole.
- 11. Slide your necklace through a clean old straw (cut to length as necessary) to keep it from tangling during travel. In between trips, store your empty straws in your travel toiletry kit or luggage to keep them handy for years of adventure. I’ve seen this tip in so many different places online, I’m not sure who should get the invention credit. Thank you to whoever came up with this one (let me know if it was you).
- 12. Set an old straw soaring as a hoop glider with these directions from Science Bob.
- 13. Plastic straws are generally made from polypropylene, plastic #5. Some municipalities accept plastic straws in their recycling program, but it can be difficult to sort out the rules. See this article from the Los Angeles Times for a wrap-up of what local recycling options for plastic straws looked like at 6:02 am on July 11th, 2011, for example. Track down a clear answer for your municipality and post it in the comments below to let your neighbors know what the rule is for your zip code. Reuse trumps recycling, but recycling is generally better than sending things to a landfill or incinerator.
- 14. Better than any recycling bin, if you don’t want to reuse or upcycle plastic straws yourself, collect up as many as you can find and offer them to a local school or art teacher, or post them to your local Freecycle group. Many people are happy to accept donations of clean straws (you can send along the list above and offer that with the straws as inspiration).
If you have an innovative alternative to plastic straws, or a great way to upcycle the ones that are already floating around in our oceans and hiding in our ditches, please do share here or on our crowd-sourcing page!