Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Eco Kids Column, Sept 2017: Alternatives to Disposable Cutlery and Plastic Straws

We all know that disposable items, be it diapers, party ware, straws, paper napkins and food takeout containers, are not good for the environment. Far too much energy and resources go into the manufacturing of these single-use products. Most of these products cannot be recycled or composted. Paper plates, plastic bags, plastic food containers, straws and plastic cutlery, even if they bear the recyclable logo (i.e. the triangular Mobius loop), are not accepted for recycling once they are contaminated by food, grease and water.
Further, the cost of recycling these items can be much higher than manufacturing new ones from scratch, since it would include the cost of collecting, sorting, washing and processing the used materials, which the manufacturer would not have to do when producing these items from petroleum and other raw materials. As such, most manufacturers would opt not to accept used plastics for recycling. Even if disposables could be recycled or composted, most of its environmental impact occurs ‘upstream’, that is, in manufacturing and transportation, before these products are even used.
Once these products are used and thrown away, they end up filling up landfills and making their way into streams, rivers and oceans. Straws and plastic cutlery have been found in the noses, throats and stomachs of turtles, whales and other marine animals. Volunteers participating in beach clean-ups can confirm that a lot of the rubbish collected from beaches consist of plastic cutlery and plastic straws.
The reason why plastic cutlery and straws are so widely used are as follows:
1.      It is cheaper than permanent washable metal cutlery and straws or compostable cutlery and straws made from plants.
2.      It is convenient and businesses do not have to worry about collecting used cutlery and straws for washing.
However, it is irresponsible and unkind to keep doing something that we know is harmful to the environment and animals just because it is cheap and convenient.
Making toys, lampshades, coasters and placemats from used plastic straws and cutlery is NOT a solution since it does not reduce the demand for, or the production of, the said products. Further, once the plastic turns brittle, you would have to throw the items away, and they would still end up in landfills and in our soil and water. It is better not to accept and use disposable plastic cutlery and straws in the first place.
Here are some of the alternatives to disposable cutlery and plastic straws:
1.      Avoid buying plastic straws or cutlery to use at home or for parties. If you don’t keep them in the house, nobody will be tempted to use them. People often go for the most convenient option out of laziness, so don’t create that option in the first place.
2.      When you are ordering takeout or food delivery, specify “NO CUTLERY OR STRAW, PLEASE.” No restaurant or fast food outlet would turn down your request since it would save them money.
3.      Get in the habit of drinking without a straw. You can safely drink from most cups, glasses, mugs, bottles and cans. Give the tops of canned drinks a quick rinse with water if you have concerns about their cleanliness. There is no guarantee that plastic straws are any cleaner than the cups or cans you are drinking out of. Most plastic straws are handled by human hands in restaurants or exposed to dust and dirt after all.
4.      Paper straws may seem like a compostable and more environmentally-friendly option, but they often require more water, energy and resources to manufacture. Since paper straws are disposable and are produced from wood pulp and therefore require the cutting down of trees, they are still a less-than-ideal alternative to plastic straws.
5.      Bioplastics, or plastics made from plants, algae or microorganisms, may sound like a good alternative to conventional petroleum-based disposable plastic products. The two most common bioplastics used for food containers and disposable tableware are PLA and PHA, which are plastics made from corn. The advantages of bioplastics is that they are made from plants, a renewable resource. They use less energy and emit less carbon dioxide than conventional plastics. They also do not have the same known health risks as petroleum-based plastics. However, there are disadvantages to producing and using bioplastics. Bioplastics can reduce food supply when valuable farming land is used to produce corn and other crops for bioplastics, instead of for growing food crops for humans and animals. Fossil fuel-based fertilisers and pesticides are often used in growing crops for bioplastics. Because bioplastics look similar to conventional plastics, they often end up in recycling bins, where they contaminate conventional plastics in the recycling plants. If bioplastics break down in the landfill, they release methane, a greenhouse gas. Therefore, it is better to avoid switching from conventional disposable plastic products to bioplastics, except when you have no other option available and have to choose between the two.
6.      Invest in a stainless steel, glass or bamboo straw and a set of steel cutlery or a Spork, and bring it with you whenever you go out so that you will not have to accept disposable plastic cutlery or straws. Remember to inform the service staff at the point of ordering your food that you do not want a straw or disposable cutlery. Do not inform them only after your food or drink has arrived.
7.      You may wish to bring an extra set of steel cutlery to lend to a friend when you go out to eat, especially when you eat at fast food outlets, food courts or food truck stops. Take a bag or container with you to bring the used cutlery home for washing if there is no soap and water where you are going.
8.      If you are travelling to a place where hygiene and clean water supply is an issue, bring some compostable bamboo or plant-based cutlery and straws with you and use these instead. You may also wish to bring biodegradable plates and cups with you when buying food and beverages from roadside stalls to avoid having to accept plastic bags, Styrofoam food containers or less-than-clean plates and cutlery.
9.      If your neighbourhood food court or school canteen is using disposable cutlery, write to the food court or canteen operator to persuade them to switch to washable, reusable and durable cutlery. Tell them how much money they will save in the long run from replacing disposables with reusables.
10.  Write to your favourite restaurants and cafes or leave a message on their Facebook pages requesting them to replace disposable plastic straws with reusable steel straws, bamboo straws or natural and compostable alternatives such as reeds, vegan candy tubes such as Twizzlers with the ends snipped off (as recommended by eco-friendly lifestyle guru Danny Seo) and papaya leaf stems (as practiced by Down-To-Earth restaurant in Ubud, Bali).
It may take you a while to adjust to not using a straw or disposable cutlery, and having to remember to carry your reusable straws and cutlery with you, but your efforts will go a long way towards preventing wildlife deaths and plastic pollution.
(Image from the Tak Nak Straw Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TakNakStraw/)

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