Ok, that's a terrible pun! Sorry!
And as well as being a terrible pun, it actually doesn't make that much sense…
It's people that suck – through the straws. The straws themselves don’t actually suck.
But, on the flip side…
...humans have been using plastic straws to suck up their sodas, smoothies and shakes for just over half a century. Unfortunately, we’ve also been thoughtlessly turfing those straws into a bin after just one use.
And that really does suck.
Plastic straws might be incredibly convenient, but they are also proving catastrophic for the environment – along with other single use plastics.
In most places and situations across the globe, plastic straws are now being replaced by paper straws. But did you know that paper straws were around looong before plastic straws?
Below, you’ll find all sorts of rubbishy information about straws. We’ll start with an exploration of plastic straws (because that’s something we REALLY need to talk about) and then turn our attention to paper straws…
After that I’ll show you how to turn trash into (scientific!) treasure – by transforming an ordinary paper straw into a spinny sprinkler. It’s a whole lotta splishy splashy fun!
We have a lot to sip on, so let's get started!
If you'd like to skip ahead to the experiment, then click here -> SPINNY SPLASHY SPRINKLER SCIENCE
Or, if you'd like to jump to the section below about the best way to dispose of paper straws, then click here -> WHICH BIN?
PLASTIC (NOT SO) FANTASTIC
Once you’ve thrown a plastic straw into a bin, chances are you’ll forget about it the instant that it’s vanished from your sight.
But, forgetting about it doesn’t mean that it has actually vanished.
When dumped into landfill (or littered into the environment) these seemingly innocuous little plastic tubes will take up to 200 years to break down.
And even then, they don’t completely vanish. Instead, they decompose into itty bitty little plastic bits called microplastics.
You’ve probably heard about microplastics, but what exactly are they?
Well, very simply, a microplastic is any piece of plastic with a length of 5mm or less.
Some microplastics are already this size when they enter the environment. These are called primary microplastics and include things like microfibres from fabrics, microbeads from cosmetics, and even glitter (which is most often a combination of plastic and aluminium).
Other microplastics form as larger objects break down. These are called secondary microplastics. Along with plastic straws, this source of microplastics includes soft drink bottles, plastic bags, food containers, disposable plates, cutlery and tea bags (yup, some tea bags are made from plastic… and that’s a story we’ll return to another day!).
Microplastics are everywhere.
And when I say everywhere, I mean EVERYWHERE!
You know how sand gets into everything? I mean, you only have to look at a beach and suddenly there’s sand in your towel, shoes and undies!
Well, microplastics have a way of spreading into so so so many more nooks and crannies. In fact, they can now be found in just about every environment, ecosystem and ‘thing’ on planet Earth.
From the Arctic to the Antarctic, microplastics have been seeping into our planet’s water, sinking into its soil and soaring up into its air.
Plus, they have even found their way into almost every animal – including humans.
Microplastics have been most extensively studied in our oceans, where their presence has been noted in plankton, worms, tuna, crabs, fish, dolphins, whales, sea turtles, seals, birds – and just about every other creature that you can possibly imagine!
The teensy-weensy fragments are eaten by some critters – either accidentally, or because they often look like food – and then bigger critters eat those critters, which then get eaten by even bigger critters, and so on up the food chain…
…until we eat some of those sea critters and the microplastics are passed to us!
Microplastics have been found in both tuna and sushi...
But that’s not the only way we ingest these plasticky fragments. We also drink them in our water and breathe them in from the air around us.
Microplastics tend to mostly commonly turn up in the filtering organs of humans – such as our lungs, liver, spleen and kidneys.
We know that microplastics can cause a variety of issues in sea creatures. For instance, they can block up an organism’s digestive system – which can cause a loss in appetite, reduce growth and even prevent reproduction. But scientists are (as of yet) unsure what damage microplastics might be doing to us.
They are, of course, trying to work that out.
They are also working on ways to reduce (if not eradicate) the problem at its source – by reducing the manufacture and distribution of plastic ‘things’.
As such, single use plastics – such as plastic straws – have now been banned in many places around the world.
Which is an excellent start!
Scientists and engineers are also focusing on the development of all sorts of new materials that can replace plastics – including many that are biodegradable or compostable.
Plus, a global hunt for plastic easting microorganisms is also underway…
A polystyrene eating bacterium has been found in the wetlands of India, a polyethylene terephthalate eating bacterium was found in sediment outside a plastic bottle recycling factory in Japan and a polyurethane eating fungus was discovered in the fallen foliage of common ivy in Buenos Aires!
These brilliant little microscopic beasts could prove to be the superheroes in the fight to remove plastic pollutants from our wounded ecosystems.
But perhaps most excitingly, YOU can help make a dent in microplastic pollution by making good choices about the kinds of plastic things that you use – and by choosing alternatives to plastic whenever you can.
Of course, one way you can do that is by ditching single use plastic straws in favour of paper straws…
But are paper straws actually a viable alternative?
And once you’ve finished with your paper straw, into which bin should you chuck it?
Read on below for the answer to these questions, plus a whole stack of other rubbishy information…
TRASHY FACT #1
Straws have been around for a very, very (VERY!) long time.
In fact, the oldest known straw is believed to be over 5000 years old.
Made from gold inlaid with lapis lazuli (ooo… fancy!) this straw was discovered in an ancient Sumerian tomb – and was probably used to drink beer.
TRASHY FACT #2
At just over 130 years old, paper straws are a relatively recent invention.
They were created in 1888 by American inventor Marvin Stone – who wrapped and glued strips of paper around a pencil to create a tube.
Voila! The paper straw was born.
TRASHY FACT #3
Plastic straws began mass production towards the end of 1940’s – alongside the rise of the fast-food industry. They were cheap to manufacture and didn’t fall apart like their paper cousins.
Fast forward to just over 70 years later…
…and many cities, states and countries around the world have begun banning single use plastics – including plastic straws. The first Australian state to make the ban was South Australia (in 2020).
SPINNY SPLASHY SPRINKLER SCIENCE
When is a paper straw not a paper straw?
When it’s a sprinkler! (Of course…)
With a few snips, bends and bits of tape you can turn an ordinary paper straw into a splishy splashy toy.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED…
Pencil / pen
Needle (or other sharp, pointy object)
Glass of water
AN ADULT TO HELP YOU OUT!
WHAT TO DO…
STEP 1) Use the ruler to divide the straw into three equal sections – and then use the pencil to make marks along the two dividing lines. Use the scissors to half cut through the straw at these points.
STEP 2) Use the needle to make a guide hole through the centre of the straw. Push the wooden skewer through the straw.
STEP 3) Bend the straw into a triangle and then tape the two ends together towards the pointy end of the skewer. (Make sure you don’t cover the ends of the straw with the tape!)
Your sprinkler is now ready to start sprinkling!
Place the pointy end of the skewer into a glass of water (submerging the ends of the straw) and then twirl the skewer between your fingers.
Water should splish out through holes cut into the straw, creating a fabulous little sprinkler!
WHAT’S GOING ON…
Spinning the straw starts water in the bottom ends of the straw spinning. Anything that spins will experience an outward force. As the straw is spun, the water spins outwards and up and outwards and up through the straw – until it sprays out the sides!
WHAT ELSE CAN YOU DO…
If you can’t get your hands on a paper straw, don’t despair!
With a little bit of creative thought, I'm sure you can find some other suitable tubes and materials...
[HINT: What about pasta tubes? Old pens? Plastic tubing?]
So, the great big really important question is…
Once you’re done with your paper straw, into which bin should you throw it?
Your choices are:
a kerbside GENERAL WASTE bin
a kerbside RECYCLING bin
a kerbside GREEN bin
or some OTHER bin or place?
Have a little think and then read on below to discover the answer...
If you’re like most people, then your first instinct would probably be to throw a paper straw into a kerbside RECYCLING bin.
And while that’s a great instinct, PLEASE DON’T!
Even though most paper-based products CAN be recycled, if it’s wet or contaminated with food, then it can’t be.
Also, many paper straws are lined with plastic and so, like plastic lined paper coffee cups, they are definitely NOT recyclable.
So, which bin should you put them in?
Well, the preferable choice here is some OTHER bin or place...
if it’s a purely paper straw, a home compost bin is the best place for them. Or you can bury them in the ground! They’ll usually take 2 to 8 weeks to fully decompose.
Otherwise, you’ll need to throw your paper straw into a GENERAL WASTE bin – which is not a great option.
The best straw is a reusable straw – made from metal, bamboo or silicone (or some other material).
Or no straw at all!
Metal, bamboo and silicone straws
CHECK WITH YOUR LOCAL COUNCIL!
Recycling and waste management is an evolving science and rules vary from country to country, city to city and council to council. Always check with YOUR local council as to what thing should go in which bin.
This blog has been written as a accompaniment to the Trash Can Man's web series...
This Show is NOT Rubbish!
Episode 4: This Sucks
You can watch the episode HERE or in the player below!