Photo by Elizaveta Galitckaia @123RF.com
We are a world of plastic. From our bags to our straws, these plastics are found everywhere. Unfortunately, that even includes the depths of our oceans. Environmentally conscious individuals have combined their voices and are making a change. The easiest change for the individual is to change to reusable straws. However, they too have an environmental impact. So, of the 2 most popular types, silicone or metal, which is the greener option?
Silicone or Metal Straws, which is greener? Surprisingly, the answer appears to be silicone. When all energy uses are examined, including obtaining raw materials, manufacturing, transport, recycling requirements and biodegradability, silicone has a lower overall environmental impact than metal straws.
Recently, the pressure of the people has caused local governments and various industries to look at or totally ban the plastic straw. New York, California, Seattle, Starbucks, Aramark and American Airlines are a few of the entities that have vowed to stop the use of these one-use wonders. Change just for the sake of change is not always preferable. We need to examine the manufacturing process, biodegradability, and functionality of the choices to make the best selection possible.
Why We Hate Plastic Straws
Globally, we produce 300 million tons of plastic, about half of which is used for single-use items, like bags and straws. So, we’re talking about 150 million tons annually, give or take a ton or two. That’s a LOT of single-use plastics.
Plastic, when recycled, can be used to make a wide array of secondary items, from polyester fabric to auto parts. This reduces the footprint and environmental impact of the plastic, making it a more palatable product.
However, it is an unfortunate fact that over 91% of plastics aren’t recycled.
Doing more math, 91% of the 150 million tons produced annually means that 136.5 million tons of single-use plastics are being thrown away every year. Without treatment (think recycling), plastics DON’T BREAK DOWN. Instead, plastics BREAK APART. Over time, the sun and heat break plastics into smaller and smaller pieces, ultimately becoming microplastics.
These microplastics are EVERYWHERE! They have actually been found in the Pyrenees Mountain Range and at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Microplastics, when taken in by animals, whether on land or sea, can accumulate in the “gut” or intestinal tract. This can lead to intestinal damage and/blockage and ultimately the very painful death of the animal.
In humans, many chemicals in plastics are known to be endocrine disrupters and research has suggested that exposures to microplastics may lead to hormonal imbalances, reproductive problems and even some forms of cancer.
Plastic Straws in the United States
According to the National Geographic, the United Stated alone used an estimated 500,000,000 (that’s 500 million) plastic straws every day in 2018. Using our 91% recycling rate previously discussed, that is about 455,000,000 (455 million) plastic straws thrown away daily. That’s just in the United States. That’s 455 million straws in our landfills, breaking into microplastics over time. 455 million straws with the potential to wreak havoc on our soil, land, ocean and our own bodies. 455 million straws just to allow us to sip on our coffee or drink our sodas in comfort and convenience.
455 million reasons we hate plastic straws, EVERY SINGLE DAY.
The best way to reduce the problem, is to reduce the use of single-use plastics, where we can. Straws are a good place to start. There are now alternatives. Reusable straws are widely available in the marketplace. These straws are available in several different materials. Metal, silicone, bamboo, glass and paper just to name a few.
Currently, the most popular are metal and silicone. What we want to know is which is greener, meaning which is better for the environment?
How “Green” are Metal Straws?
First, I think we should clarify the word “metal.” Most “metal” straws are made of stainless steel. If you search online for a “metal” straw, you’re going to find stainless steel, not aluminum, for example. Currently, stainless steel straws are the most common of the reusable straw options.
HSU (Humboldt State University) included metal straws in a study published in January 2020. The study compared various straw types, including stainless steel, paper, plastic, bamboo, and glass. Each was evaluated for energy cost of production, carbon dioxide emissions, and cost.
A single stainless-steel straw is responsible for using 2420 kJ (kilo joule) of energy. It’s manufacturing process and transportation releases 217 grams of carbon dioxide emissions and costs $3.00. In comparison, the single traditional plastic straw is responsible for 2.2 kJ of energy. It’s manufacturing process and transportation releases 1.46 grams of carbon dioxide emissions and it costs $0.003,
Based solely on these figures, one would question the sanity of a world wanting to transition to reusable straws at all, much less stainless-steel. In fact, stainless-steel straws had the highest footprint of all the options compared. However, there are many other figures to consider in evaluating the environmental impact of the stainless-steel straw.
Plastic straws are, by their nature, single use. Sure, sometimes you can use a plastic straw a second or third time, if you are intent on doing so, but it won’t hold up for long.
The stainless-steel straw, on the other hand, is specifically designed for daily, repeated use.
The same HSU study found that the additional embedded energy used to make and transport the stainless-steel straw would be offset by simply using it 102 times. After the 103rd use, the stainless-steel straw becomes more environmentally friendly in the manufacturing and costs than the traditional plastic straw.
To offset the carbon dioxide emissions difference, you would need to use your stainless-steel straw 149 times. This study estimated that only 3% of straws would be thrown away within a 5-year period. However, that same durability means they aren’t going to break down in our landfills, either.
Technically, stainless-steel straws are recyclable. However, that does come with a caveat. They have to be transported to special metal recycling facilities. This will add to their intrinsic energy costs and overall environmental impact.
Advantages of Stainless-Steel Straws
Stainless-steel straws have some key advantages.
- They are extremely long lasting and durable.
- They are dishwasher safe.
- They are unbreakable.
- Stainless-steel is BPA free.
- Easily cut down to fit different size glasses or mugs.
Disadvantages of Stainless-Steel Straws
Stainless-steel straws also come with some disadvantages, particularly compared to other reusable straw options.
- You can’t tell how clean it is, particularly the interior.
- They can leave a metallic taste in the mouth, particularly with the sensitive palate.
- Stainless-steel can conduct heat.
- It feels unpleasant or different in the mouth, and uncomfortable against the teeth.
- For small children particularly, metal straws can pose a safety risk.
- They are difficult to recycle.
How “Green” are Silicone Straws?
First, what exactly is silicone? You probably know it is used in all sorts of products, but do you have any idea what it is? According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, silicone is “any of various polymeric organic silicon compounds obtained as oils, greases, or plastics and used especially for water-resistant and heat-resistant lubricants, varnishes, binders, and electric insulators.” So, environmentally speaking, silicone is more durable and ocean friendly than plastic.
Not as much information on the energy requirements or carbon dioxide emissions in the manufacturing of silicone straws exist. In fact, at the time of this article’s writing, we were unable to find a single study that addresses that specific topic.
So, we will have to examine silicone differently. Let’s start by looking at the manufacturing process to make silicone itself. Silicone is made of silicon. Please note the difference in spelling. Silicon is one of the elements on the periodic chart.
How is Silicone Created?
The first step is isolating silicon from silica (the same silica you find in sand). This is done by heating a large volume of quartz sand to temperatures as high as 1800°C. The result is pure silicon, which is then ground into a powder.
This powder is then mixed with chemicals that have more letters than some languages do. The end result is a polymer with a siloxane bond. This bond is the backbone of silicone and has a Si-O-Si (Silicon-Oxygen-Silicon) chemical structure. Additional organic compounds are added as appropriate for the end goal of the manufacturer. Simtec Silicone Parts notes that, though it sounds complicated, the process is surprisingly straightforward and can be done on a mass scale with fairly low cost.
The silicone is provided to the straw manufacturer in bags. These bags contain a powdered form of silicone. The silicone is mixed with water and made into thin sheets. The sheets are then fed into a molding machine, which appears to use heat and pressure to form the tubes we are familiar with and call straws. There is a short YouTube video that shows the process.
Silicone, as a generalized product, is used in a wide variety of items. Some include sealants, adhesives, lubricants, medicine, cooking utensils, hair products, and thermal/electrical insulation. The primary variable in all of these different products is the organic compounds added to the initial silicon backbone.
Silicone is Fairly Benign
Silicone is a very stable compound, meaning nothing leaches out of it into food or liquids. It neither absorbs nor releases toxins. It is dishwasher safe and recyclable. Though not “biodegradable,” when silicone breaks down in a natural environment, it becomes silica, carbon dioxide and water. Silicone straws are free from BPA, BPS, Phthalate, Lead, Cadmium, Mercury, PBBs and other carcinogenic compounds traditionally found in plastic straws. Therefore, though similar to plastic, they are fairly benign to the environment and living beings.
Silicone straws are soft and bend easily. The risk to small children is eliminated and those that like to “chew” on their straw may do so with enthusiasm.
Are There Disadvantages to Silicone Straws?
Silicone straws have significant disadvantages as well. Because they are artificially manufactured, there is some concern amongst certain heath-focused groups that, in fact, chemical releases could occur, particularly at higher temperature levels.
As they are not biodegradable and require special recycling, there are also concerns that they may not be environmentally as friendly as we would like to think they are.
A final concern, and this is a big one, is that silicone straws tend to develop mold on the interior of the straw, which is hard to see and clean. This is easily solved by thorough cleanings on a routine basis with a pipe cleaner-like brush, along with sterilization in your dishwasher. But it is still too disgusting a thought for some people.
Advantages of Silicone Straws
The advantages are pretty clear.
- Soft and pliant.
- Available in variety of colors and patterns (a real plus if you have children).
- Does not conduct heat or cold particularly well.
Disadvantages of Silicone Straws
As with everything, there are disadvantages to silicone straws as well.
- They are not totally neutral in taste.
- Consistency feels unusual in the mouth.
- Not biodegradable.
- Frequently not recycled.
- Difficult to clean effectively.
What Are the 5 Best Reusable Straws on the Market?
Both stainless-steel and silicone straws are designed to be used indefinitely. Both have comparable strengths and weaknesses. So, what are the top 5 best reusable straws on the market? Let’s take a peek.
- Koffie Straw. This silicone straw was also ranked #1 reusable straw by New York Magazine! This straw is designed primarily with coffee-drinking in mind, though obviously it is usable for other beverages. It is available in a variety of colors, making it easier to identify what beverage belongs to whom at a glance. Amazon.com offers a package of 2 straws, one in a 8” length and the other 10” long and comes with a cleaning brush for about $12.00. Unfortunately, it ships in plastic packaging. If you prefer to skip the plastic altogether, the Koffie Straw is also available at the Package Free Shop for about $7 each. Amazon reviews show a rating of 4.7 of 5 stars, based on 74 ratings.
- Alink Stainless Steel Straw. This straw is actually a hybrid, of sorts. It features a stainless-steel barrel with a silicone tip. The barrels are made with 18/8 food-grade stainless steel, FDA approved, BPA-free and lead-free. These straws are 10.5” long and have a 0.24” diameter. They fit nicely for 20oz and 30oz beverage containers and water bottles. Amazon.com has a package of 8 straws (4 straight and 4 bent) and 2 cleaning brushes for about $7. The reviews show a rating of 4.7 of 5 stars, based on 1,496 ratings.
- Softy Straws. These silicone straws are made with top grade, non-plastic non-rubber, food grade, pinch-test passing silicone. They are the same size as traditional plastic straws, (8.25” long with a 5.5mm interior diameter). Best used with 16oz or 20oz beverage containers. They are dishwasher-safe and BPA Free, BPS Free, Phthalate Free, and PVC Free. Additionally, they are safe for children and toddlers. Amazon.com has a package of 5 straws and a straw squeegee for about $12, and the reviews show they have a 4.8 of 5-star ranking, based on 809 reviews.
- Klean Kanteen. Klean Kanteen offers another stainless-steel/silicone hybrid straw. What I really like about this straw is the silicone tips come off, for easier cleaning of the stainless-steel barrel. The silicone tips come in a variety of colors. Amazon.com has a package of 4 straws, plus cleaning brush for about $14. Amazon reviews show they have a rating of 4.6 out of 5 stars, based on 659 ratings.
- Green Steel Stainless Steel. These are a good-looking, quality stainless-steel option. They come in a variety of sizes, lengths and widths to choose from. They are 100% stainless steel, BPA-free, Phthalate-free, Lead & Toxin-free. Even the packaging is environmentally friendly and recyclable. Different “sizes” are available, including small, medium and tall, depending on the length of the straw you want. Amazon.com packages come in quantities of 4 straws (2 straight and 2 curved/bent) and include a cleaning brush for about $3, and reviews show they have a rating of 4.8 out of 5 stars, based on 490 ratings.
Final Thoughts on Straws
When looking at the big picture, including obtaining raw materials, the manufacturing process, cost of transportation, biodegradability, ease of recycling and other factors, it certainly seems that the silicone straw is more environmentally friendly or “green” than the stainless-steel metal straw.
There are other reusable straw options available too. Such as glass straws, bamboo straws, single-use paper straws that biodegrade and, of course, the no straw option.
Will changing your straw save the world? No, it won’t.
The straw conversation is exactly that, a conversation designed to help people start making small changes in their lives. If every person chooses to make small changes, that leads to big impacts in the long run.
So, use a silicone or stainless-steel reusable straw, or go wild and use a bamboo, glass or licorice straw. Just make the change and make a difference. Future generations and your planet will thank you.