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 plastic on beaches, 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 finally 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 one billion plastic straws a year. "By nature, the straw isn’t recyclable and the lid is, so we feel this decision is more sustainable and more socially responsible," said Chris Milne, director of packaging sourcing for Starbucks. "Starbucks is finally drawing a line in the sand and creating a mold for other large brands to follow. We are raising the water line for what’s acceptable and inspiring our peers to follow suit."

One California Assemblyman introduced a bill earlier this year requiring certain dining establishments to only provide a plastic straw when a customer requests one. (The bill does not apply to fast food, takeout or counter-service restaurants.)

Assemblyman Ian Calderon said the bill wouldn't ban plastic straws; it's intended to curb their use. In his proposal, he refers to data that states 500 million straws are thrown away everyday in the U.S.

New York City may also join the movement. A bill scheduled to be presented before city council would ban plastic straws and coffee stirrers.

"The straw stays in our environment without decomposing for hundreds of years," Councilman Rafael Espinal told New York Daily News. "We're seeing cities across the country and the globe phasing out plastic straws, and it has no impact on the consumer or small business."

And in Seattle, starting July 1, businesses that sell food or drinks will be banned from offering plastic straws or utensils.

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

If you find you really like to use a straw at home, or you want to provide them at your business for those who need them, there are two great ways to go. The first, best one is trying a reusable straw, which can be washed along with dishes. 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 everywhere from Williams Sonoma to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, as well as online.

Another option is paper straws, which are disposable and also sometimes come in lots of pretty decorative colors and patterns. (These are my favorite.) You can even find them made from recycled paper!

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. So c'mon, just do it.

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.