What about PLA (bioplastic) straws?
An increasing number of cities and countries have instituted single-use plastic bans, resulting in replacements that vary in effectiveness and adoption. Here in Seattle, the plastic straw substitutes found in restaurants and coffee shops are made from PLA and touted as a compostable, environmentally-friendly solution. Yet in some ways, PLA can be as problematic as plastic.
PLA stands for “polylactic acid”. It’s a bioplastic made from the sugar starches of plants like corn and sugarcane — a clear upgrade from standard plastics made from petroleum. The primary selling point for PLA is that it’s biodegradable, albeit under specific circumstances (more on this later). As it pertains to straws, PLA is virtually indistinguishable from regular plastic; many consumers, author included, cannot distinguish PLA straws from “the real deal”. This makes PLA an important step in the right direction toward the goal of sustainable straw-drinking products, by giving plastic straw–lovers a more eco-friendly alternative to traditional petroleum-based straws.
That being said, PLA is not a perfect plastic panacea (try saying that five times fast). The biodegradability of these straws depends heavily on condition; they can be composted, but they require high temperatures found only in industrial-grade composting conditions. Your backyard compost bin won't cut it. Under any other circumstances, PLA straws decompose at a rate similar to regular plastic and they can’t be recycled, either. So unless you live in a place with great industrial composting infrastructure (composting programs by state) or intend to bring your PLA straws to a commercial composting facility when you’re done using them, those PLA straws will likely stick around just as long as the old plastic ones.
Part of the reason we started researching straws in the first place was because the PLA straws we used in coffee shops seemed too good to be true. For folks with impaired mobility who need a bendy straw with the flexibility of plastic, PLA is a great alternative. For everyone else… PLA straws boast the functionality and durability of their plastic counterparts, but do little to diminish straws’ long-term negative impact on the environment when not properly discarded. Instead of PLA, try reusable straws, such as bamboo or metal, or if you’re looking for something disposable, reed or wheat straws.