How eco-friendly is a reusable straw?

The Sunday Times writer Alyssa Woo takes along two nylon bags of different sizes wherever she goes.
The Sunday Times writer Alyssa Woo takes along two nylon bags of different sizes wherever she goes. PHOTOS: TIMOTHY DAVID, ALEXIS GABRIELLE P. FLORES

Reusable straws, bags and cups might not be as green as people assume. Alyssa Woo reports

Climate change is a topic people cannot run away from anymore.

In Singapore, many are doing their best to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. This includes saying no to plastic bags and straws and using recyclable cups and bowls instead of single-use paper or plastic versions.

But some of these well-meaning efforts to save the planet might be doing the exact opposite.

A recent University of Sydney study found that the use of paper bags increased exponentially in places that banned plastic bags, including in California and Australia.

That would not have been a problem if not for the fact that paper bags use more resources to produce than single-use plastic bags, according to multiple studies, including a 2011 research paper by the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Who would have thought?

So, which exactly is the most eco-friendly choice when it comes to using straws, bags and cups?


1 REUSABLE STRAWS


SOURCES: HUMBOLDT STATE UNIVERSITY

Many people are on board the "say no to plastic straws" movement and for good reason - many of these straws are not recycled and end up in landfills, or worse, in oceans.

So, naturally, all reusable straws are a much better alternative than plastic straws, right? Not quite.

According to a research last year by the Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, it takes more energy to produce reusable straws compared with single-use plastic straws.

In fact, producing one metal straw uses enough energy to produce more than 100 plastic straws.

  • REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE

  • At the end of the day, I realised I was getting swept away by the hype of living a sustainable lifestyle without knowing the consequences of my actions.

    I also found that replacing these items with “eco-friendly” alternatives should perhaps be the last resort.

    There are certainly many ways for people to go green; for example, consuming less resources such as water and energy, and recycling.

It also releases a lot more carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, which is one of the major factors of climate change. The most eco-friendly option: Stainless steel or glass straw Even though the above options require more energy to produce than bamboo straws, they are virtually indestructible and so can last for a longer time.

Ideally, this would mean fewer straws need to be produced.

If you factor in the recyclability factor, however, then the stainless steel straw trumps the rest as it is 100 per cent recyclable.

It is trickier with glass straws, specifically those that are manufactured with a plastic layer to make them shatter-resistant.

Also, bamboo straws leave a funny taste in the mouth.

That said, the best possible alternative is doing without a straw, as some might find it too much of a hassle taking along a straw to meals and cleaning and drying it after use.

2 REUSABLE CUPS


SOURCES: TERN GOODS

Like reusable straws and bags, it takes a lot more energy to manufacture reusable cups than single-use disposable cups.

The good thing about these reusable-cup alternatives is that all the materials are recyclable.

However, recycling ceramics is a hassle as they cannot simply be put into any recycling bin. They should be sent to a facility that processes brick and concrete, where they are then crushed and used as part of gravel.

The most eco-friendly option: Glass mug Not only is it environmentally friendly, glass is a good insulator and great for holding hot beverages.

 

But do I really need a special cup just to hold my coffee or tea? As many people already have different types of mugs and cups at home, there is no need to replace them with glass ones.

3 REUSABLE BAGS

When presented with a choice of using a cotton tote bag and a nylon bag, many people might have gone with the cotton option, because a naturally occurring material that is biodegradable and recyclable is seemingly better than a synthetic one.

However, according to a report last year by Denmark's Ministry of Environment and Food, one would have to use a cotton tote bag thousands of times to match the environmental footprint of a single-use plastic bag. And if the bag was made of organic cotton, one would have to use it even more times.

Cotton is a resource-sucking crop: A lot of land, water and fertilisers are needed, and the use of fertilisers causes water, land and air pollution. For the cultivation of organic cotton, in which fertilisers are not used, more land and water are needed to harvest the same amount of conventional cotton.

Even if tote-bag users were somehow able to wrangle a few hundred uses out of a cotton bag, it is going to tear apart and look the worse for wear.

Also, the types of ink used to print designs on cotton totes could make a bag non-recyclable if the ink is toxic or not biodegradable.

Cotton tote bags can be recycled with their fibres chopped up and respun into recycled yarn, for example.

 
 

However, a cotton bag can be recycled only a number of times until the quality of the fibre becomes too poor to be recycled and is better used as stuffing. Cotton is biodegradable, at the very least.

Nylon, though not biodegradable, is recyclable. But the recycling process for nylon is expensive and laborious. The most eco-friendly option: Nylon bags

There are myriad cotton tote bags out there to suit every style.

I own a few, but cannot bring myself to own any more because I know how environmentally unfriendly they are compared with nylon bags.

For a nylon bag to be the most eco-friendly option, I need to make sure I use it as many times as I can for as long as possible and to properly recycle it instead of throwing it away should it become unusable.

I now take along with me at all times two nylon bags of different sizes, which I use to carry all my purchases.

 
 

I did not realise how many plastic bags I was using until I had to remind myself to tell the cashier I did not need a plastic bag each time I bought something.

So far, this is the "eco-friendly" alternative that I use the most. The nylon bags are hardy and I can carry heavy items in them without worrying about overstretching the fabric.

I also do not have to fret if they get dirty because I can just wipe them clean or throw them into the washing machine.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 03, 2019, with the headline 'How eco-friendly is a reusable straw?'. Print Edition | Subscribe