plastic straw pollution Instead of using a plastic straw (which could potentially end up in the ocean), opt for a paper one instead. (Photo: Rich Carey/Aba/Shutterstock)

The worst thing about plastic straws is that most of the time, they're not a choice.

Like much of the single-use plastic that comes our way, plastic straws just appear, placed in takeout bags or appearing in cups of soda, iced tea or water. And if you pick up trash on the beach you know that one of the most common pieces of plastic waste you'll find is plastic straws. They're everywhere. And once they make their way into the marine ecosystem, they're eaten by fish and birds that mistake them for food. Straws are used once — to sip a frosty beverage — and then they immediately become garbage, persisting in the environment for decades.

Thankfully, businesses and governments are doing something about it.

Starbucks announced it will eliminate plastic straws from all its stores by 2020 and replace them with new cups that have a raised-lip lid made of recyclable plastic. The global coffee company uses more than 1 billion plastic straws a year. In July 2018, Seattle became the first major city to ban plastic straws.

California became the first state to take such a step with its law taking effect on Jan. 1. The law bans plastic straws from dine-in establishments unless a customer requests one. (The bill doesn't apply to fast food, takeout or counter-service restaurants.) The intent was never to ban plastic straws entirely but to curb their use considerably — and to make a dent in the 500 million straws thrown away everyday in the U.S.

New York City has also joined the movement. In April, Mayor Bill De Blasio announced that the city will no longer purchase single-use plastics, including straws, though he was quick to say that anyone with a medical condition should get what they need.

Many other cities and states have proposals winding their way through the process of becoming law.

Fewer straws = less waste

There's also a unique and very specific organization that wants to change the wasteful narrative around plastic straws by encouraging people to take some simple steps to keep straws out of the waste stream.

The Last Plastic Straw has a simple ask:

"Simply request 'no straw' at bars & restaurants and share your commitment with others," reads the site. "Encourage your favorite restaurant or bar to only provide straws on request from the customer and to use compostable or reusable options to the plastic straw. Basically what we are asking you to do is DO LESS: less consumption, less waste, less straws. It’s a win-win!"

Bars and restaurants can be proactive, too. No Plastic Straw suggests:

  • Provide a straw only when one is requested
  • Provide either compostable or reusable straws
  • Get rid of straws completely

Options for those who need a straw

However, as Robin Shreeves has pointed out on MNN, there are some people who really do need plastic straws, and we should design the laws accordingly. For some with disabilities, the options below don't solve their problems, but as we keep on chipping away at this issue, we can create options that work for those with disabilities and don't end up polluting our waterways.

For anyone who really likes to use a straw at home, or for someone who wants to provide a better option at a business for those who need them, there are several ways to go. The first, best one is trying a reusable straw, which can be washed along with dishes, so they are good option for someone who knows they want a straw when eating out. They come in stainless steel or glass. (I've tried both, and the metal ones are best for longevity, though the glass ones are great for cocktails, and are stronger than you'd think — they come in all kinds of sizes and some have fun decorations.) You can find the stainless straws in plenty of brick-and-mortar stores, as well as online.

Another option is paper straws, which are disposable and also can be found in decorative colors and patterns. (These are my favorite.) You can even find them made from recycled paper! Some paper options don't always hold up as well, so they are fine for single-use but may can get mushy over time.

One new option is this straw made of sedge grass, the brainchild of Vietnamese entrepreneur Tran Minh Tien, according to ZME Science. The wild grass called "co bang" is naturally hollow, so once it has been farmed, getting the straws ready for sale is a matter of soaking, cleaning and baking them. They are bundled into a leaf wrapper as you can see in the video below. (As of now, the straws are only available in Vietnam but the owner hopes to expand.)

With so many options available, there's no reason to add to the plastic straw waste problem. So often with environmental issues, solutions aren't that simple, but this is an easy one to support.

Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in July 2017.

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Why you should kick the plastic straw habit
Plastic straws create litter and often end up in the stomachs of wild animals — but the group Last Plastic Straw has an easy solution.