Do Biodegradable “Plastic” Straws Exist?

We’re all concerned about the environment, and we all want to make choices that will help preserve the planet for future generations.

Unfortunately, plastic is a big part of the problem. It takes a very long time to decompose in landfills. And it’s also very harmful to wildlife—especially marine life.

That’s why we’ve been on the lookout for better alternatives to plastic straws. Let’s examine if biodegradable “plastic” straws exist and, if so, whether these straws are truly an eco-friendly alternative to regular plastic ones.

Are There Biodegradable Plastic Straws?

Biodegradable plastic straws exist on the market today. These plastics are called PLA-based, and they’re made out of organic materials.

But don’t get too excited—PLA straws aren’t a silver bullet for environmental pollution; they’re more like a middle ground between disposable plastic and compostable straws.

Biodegradable plastic straws are PLA (polylactic acid) straws. Polylactic acid is a type of organic plastic derived from renewable resources.

The United States produces PLA bioplastic from corn kernels. Other countries around the world utilize sugar beet pulp or cassava to make PLA.

In a process known as wet milling, corn kernels are immersed in sulfur dioxide and hot water. The corn mixture breaks down into starch, protein, and fiber. Bacteria or yeast ferment dextrose from the corn starch, creating lactic acid, which can then be used to create PLA plastic products.

Because PLA plastic is made from renewable resources such as corn, it’s considered biodegradable. But simply being a renewable resource or able to break down does not mean a product is truly eco-friendly or compostable. 

Plastics made of organic materials are often touted as biodegradable, but this is only true in the right conditions. PLA-based plastics must be processed in special facilities at high temperatures to make them biodegradable.

There are, however, eco-friendly PLA-free and BPA-free straws that you can compost at home. When you’re on the lookout for straws, make sure you check that they are home-compostable.

How Long Does It Take for Biodegradable Plastic Straws to Decompose?

Biodegradable plastics decompose within three to six months—compared with the hundreds of years it takes for traditional plastic materials like polyethylene and polypropylene. But that is under specific conditions.

The decomposition process for biodegradable plastic straws varies depending on where they end up. If found in the ocean, a compost facility, or a landfill, they will each take a different amount of time to break down.

Industrial Compost Facilities

PLA needs industrial composting conditions to biodegrade. These bioplastics require specialized industrial composting and recycling facilities to dispose of PLA products properly.

It also means that you should always separate bioplastics from traditional plastics so they don’t contaminate each other during recycling or composting processes.

If bioplastic contaminates traditional plastic, waste management facilities will reject both types of plastic. And the straw ends up in the landfill instead of being recycled or composted.

Industrial compost facilities can effectively break down biodegradable plastic straws within a few months. They control the heat needed to decompose plastics efficiently.

Recycling waste can be a very effective way to conserve our resources and reduce the need for new raw materials. But it takes fossil fuels or other forms of energy to maintain industrial-scale recycling facilities, so the carbon footprint remains high.

Landfills

Landfills do not provide the right conditions for bioplastics to decompose. Biodegradable plastic straws remain intact, just like any other plastic.

Nearly all biodegradable plastic ends up in a landfill instead of adequately disposing of it. Because landfills turn over waste and are oxygen-free, bioplastics remain intact.

Sunlight, heat, and microorganisms that would break down the plastic—all of which affect other kinds of plastic in any landfill—are hampered by being buried in an environment without air.

PLA plastic degrades at 572°F (300°C). But landfills never get that hot. The average temperature in a landfill is between 75°F (23°C) and 115°F (46°C). These temperatures are too cold for PLA plastic to biodegrade in our lifetime.

Biodegradable plastics such as PLA can take hundreds of years to decompose, releasing methane gas—a greenhouse gas with a potency 20 times higher than carbon dioxide.

Oceans

PLA, or polylactic acid, is often branded as biodegradable. Scientists have found PLA plastics do not degrade over a year in the ocean. When bioplastics decompose, they release microplastic particles.

These microplastic particles can be mistaken for food or confused with natural debris. Marine wildlife can ingest plastic and die as a result. The EPA says that virtually all of the plastics ever created, virtually all of them still exist. Those plastics are left to float around for decades or centuries.

Are Plastic Straws Biodegradable?

Single-use plastic straws are not biodegradable. Commonly constructed from polypropylene or polystyrene, these straws can take up to 200 years to degrade into compost in a landfill.

When they sit in landfills, plastic straws start degrading into microplastics instead. And these microplastics can wreak havoc on ecosystems and our bodies.

Because microplastics are tiny, they end up in our water systems and oceans, where marine life and humans consume them. We ingest these plastic fragments when we eat seafood or other fish that have consumed microplastics in their diets.

Microplastics are known to leach chemicals that can disrupt hormone levels and cause cell death. These chemicals also stick around in our bodies for years after ingestion.

We know that single-use plastics are bad for our planet and our health, so let’s start making better choices!

Why Use Plastic Straws When There Are Much Better Alternatives?

Plastic straws, including PLA, can take hundreds of years to decompose, and paper falls apart in liquid. There’s a better alternative to plastic and paper straws: sugarcane ones!

Sugarcane straws are 100% biodegradable and compostable, so you can feel good about using them. These plant-based, biodegradable drinking straws are verified by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), so you know they’re safe for the environment. And they come in a variety of sizes, including biodegradable cocktail straws and thicker, eco-friendly boba straws. See all compostable straws here.

They also have a smaller footprint than plastic or paper alternatives. So ditch those plastic straws and switch to a better, more sustainable straw. You’ll be glad you did!

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