This humble little plastic tube has come to represent the enemy in the battle against waste and pollution. But there are viable alternatives, writes Lana Hart.

T​hey were as innocent as childhood itself: Part of milkshakes, picnics, trips to McDonald's with the soccer team. Now, these tubular demons are a poster child for the plastic pollution movement.

Viral videos of straw-extractions from a sea turtle's nose. Images of sea horses drifting portside of straws. The phrase "no straw please" ringing through the restaurants of the developed world. Gosh, even the Queen has banned them from her royal estates.

How did it all go so very wrong for these little plastic pipes?

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"It's their completely disposable nature," says Camden Howitt, co-founder and chief executive of Kiwi charity Sustainable Coastlines.

"They're designed to last forever, are non-renewable, and are part of the disposable culture where we use cheap and light products once, then throw them away. And we consume these products in very large numbers."

With more than 65,000 plastic straws being collected in their 10 years of tidying up New Zealand beaches, you can see why Sustainable Coastlines isn't a big fan. The charity coordinates large-scale coastal clean-up events, educational programmes, public awareness campaigns, and counts the items they collect with a view to learning more about New Zealand's litter problem.

And plastic straws account for almost three per cent of the rubbish it collects along beaches.

"When you're walking down a beach in New Zealand, straws will be one of the top 10 bits of rubbish you'll notice," says Howitt.

Camden Howitt, co-founder and chief executive of Kiwi charity, Sustainable Coastlines. Photo / Jason Dorday
Camden Howitt, co-founder and chief executive of Kiwi charity, Sustainable Coastlines. Photo / Jason Dorday

Every single piece of plastic ever made is still in our environment, anti-plastic campaigners claim. Due to its chemical composition, nothing in nature can speed up the biodegradation of plastic, so it lasts well over 200 years after it is no longer needed.

At Christchurch's EcoSort, which recycles solid materials on behalf of the Christchurch City Council, plastic straws are regarded as contaminants and end up in the landfill.

"Anything smaller than a yoghurt pottle," explains Ross Trotter, the council's solid waste manager, "drops out of the sorter. It's sorting through 25 tonnes of material each hour, so along with bottle caps and other small items, it becomes residual waste and is moved to a landfill."

The United Nations estimates that, of the world's marine rubbish, plastic straws comprise four per cent by item count. By weight, they account for 2000 tonnes a year out of eight million tonnes (.00025 per cent) of plastic rubbish dumped in the oceans each year.

A​merican Milo Cress is often credited as the kid who started the straw ban movement.

Aged nine in 2010, he encouraged a local restaurant in Vermont to ask customers if they wanted a straw, rather than automatically providing it.

He told media "it saved them money, it would be good for the environment, and there wouldn't be so much waste. I was worried adults wouldn't listen to me because I was kid ... but I found the opposite to be true."

After Milo was featured on CNN News, media coverage of the initiative spread and several environmental groups began focusing their efforts on "ditch the straw", #StopSucking, and For a Strawless Ocean.

From 2015, activism, especially in social media, started taking hold as companies were pressured to change practices around the unquestioning offering of plastic straws in every drink.

Pledging their commitment to reducing or eliminating plastic straws in their businesses contributed to the corporate social brand of many companies.

Restaurants, bars and venues around New Zealand are now banning straws as part of the global push.

The Coffee Club this week announced it will now use Eco Straws - a paper straw that is 100 per cent recyclable and compostable - at its 63 stores.

The move will eliminate nearly one million plastic straws annually (898,000).

John Hellebrekers, managing director of hospitality group Barworks Auckland, said all 18 of its venues became plastic-straw free this year in favour of biodegradable cardboard straws.

"These are also are only given to the customer by request, we will occasionally put a disposable, but biodegradable one into a drink if it's a tall drink that needs a straw, otherwise we don't use any sort of straw unless they ask for it.

"The reception has been fantastic, both from our staff who are right behind it and also we got a lot of good comments and support from our customers," Hellerbrekers said.

Barworks venues include Sweat Shop Brew Kitchen in Freemans Bay, The Lula Inn, Degree and Garrison Public House.

"We were going through 1.3 million plastic straws a year across all of our venues," Hellerbrekers says.

The hospitality group started looking at alternatives to the plastic straw at the end of 2017, but Hellerbrekers said they had struggled to find a supplier who could cope with their orders.

Barworks is now looking to ways they can minimise their energy and power use and have started to explore how they could eventually move toward zero waste kitchens.

On Waiheke Island, a campaign coined Straw Free Waiheke has already prompted 37 venues to ditch plastic straws.

The growing list of venues who have ditched the plastic straw on the island include, The Island Grocer, Little Frog, Artworks Community Theatre, Waiheke Island Community Cinema, Talking Tree Hill, Stonyridge Vineyard and many more.

Sudima Hotels has made the same pledge.

When I visited one of their hotel restaurants to see if the corporate pledge had hit the ground, the bartender stuck a paper straw into my fizzy drink without asking. I asked: what did other customers think?

She explained that they liked it, because it was "better for the environment". Any complaints? After all, paper isn't as smooth on the lips as a creamy tube of plastic. None, she smiled.

Supa Shakes Ltd, formerly Wendy's Supa Shakes, is in the process of converting to "bioplastic straws" which claim to be commercially compostable. But concerns have been raised recently about the ability of New Zealand's 98 composting facilities to effectively breakdown bioplastics which are marketed as compostable.

But no straws won't work for one popular product that relies on a specially designed straw: Bubble tea.

Originally from Taiwan, these flavoured treats feature tapioca pearls that sink to the bottom of the cup that, when sucked through a wide straw, give the sensation of eating and drinking at the same time.

"You can't really drink it from the cup – the pearls would just stay on the bottom," says Emily Wang, owner of Jels Bubble Tea in Riccarton Mall, Christchurch.

In Taiwan and China, "some places are using metal straws when you can sit down and drink it there. But the problem with that is that they are more expensive and people take them."

Myriad plastic items are being banned at bars, eateries and supermarkets around the country.

In February, the Government was considering a ban on plastic bags, after a 65,000-strong petition was handed over to Parliament.

Supermarket chain Countdown began phasing out plastic carrier bags in May with New World, Pak'nSave and Four Square doing the same.

Mitre 10 has also ceased using single-use plastic bags and boot liners.

L​ike many great ideas, the drinking straw was born at the pub.

Pulling liquid through a narrow cylinder to our mouths began with the Ancient Sumerians.

As our species' likely first homebrewers, they used tubes made of different metals to suck beer from below the fermentation byproducts that floated to the tops of the brewing jars.

Rye grass, straw and paper were used to make straws for three millenniums until the plastic revolution took hold in the 1960s. Plastic was cheap, easy to make and could be moulded into anything. Colours were added to make straws bright, striped and playful, and they found a natural home in fast-food restaurants' and ice cream parlours' takeaway cup lids.

In the 1930s Joseph Friedman watched his young daughter trying to drink from a straight paper straw. Friedman, an American inventor, began to fiddle with it.

He inserted a screw and, with dental floss, wrapped the paper into the screw threads, creating corrugations. When he removed the screw, the straw would bend precisely over the edge of the glass, allowing his daughter to more easily drink. Friedman called it his "Drinking Tube" and patented the flexible drinking straw in 1937.

Today, flexible plastic straws are an important aid to the care of people with disabilities or who temporarily have difficulty drinking directly from a glass.

And disability advocates have concerns about the anti-straw movements' call for universal bans.

In a letter to Seattle Council Members from Disability Rights Washington prior to the city-wide ban, advocates wrote that "Many people with physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis require the use of plastic straws in order to hydrate. Other types of straws simply do not offer the combination of strength, flexibility, and safety that plastic straws do. Metal straws become hot or cold and offer a risk of injury."

At Christchurch Hospital, straws are regularly used in the Spinal and Paediatric Units to assist patients when drinking.

A CDHB spokesperson says "paper straws tend to stick to dry lips; they are a challenge for people with sensory difficulties due to the sensation of them, and they do not retain their form long enough".

And besides being difficult to clean properly and remain hygienic in a germ-rich environment, metal straws "are quite hard for people with sensory difficulties/reduced oromotor (oral motor) control".

W​ith so many other environmental problems to solve, why has the world targeted the plastic straw?

For Howitt, it's "the simplicity of the solution that appeals to people".

"Straws are a tangible product that people don't actually need. They may have seen the sea turtle video and been disturbed by it. By removing plastic straws from our lives, we can easily reduce our negative impact and send a public signal that the throwaway society is not the right expression of our Kiwi values."

Trotter agrees.

"Everything we purchase has to end up somewhere. How much is being produced and how much is being consumed have to be considered. We need to get smarter around reducing packaging, otherwise it becomes a challenge for all the councils of New Zealand."

He says that many solutions to the wider plastic problem are being considered.

These include onshore recycling plants to reduce reliance on the overseas recycled plastics markets, standardised labelling so that "de-compostable" and "bio-degradable" have common meanings, and product stewardship schemes, where manufacturers add in levies to the price of their products to handle its sustainable disposal at the end of its life.

Computer manufacturers, for example, might add five per cent to their purchase prices to pay for someone to dismantle the device when it was no longer wanted, and take responsibility for its safe disposal.

As a symbol of what everyone can easily do to address the plastic problem in their everyday lives, Howitt says that we are "signalling our values and what is important to us as Kiwis. It connects us back to who we are."

Alternatives to plastic straws

• Paper
• Hay (wheat stems)
• Stainless steel
• Glass
• Biodegradable silicone
• Bamboo
• Loliware, edible straws made from flavoured seaweed.