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Why coronavirus does not mean the end of zero waste

You may have heard stories or even seen local businesses in your area make the decision to ban reusable coffee cups, or reusable containers. I first heard about this when Starbucks made the decision at the beginning of March to not only refuse reusable coffee cups but also switch all dine-in reusables (cups, plates, cutlery) to single-use disposables.

(Although interestingly they will – at the time of writing – still accept your pre-handled money, unlike other stores which are now also banning cash and allowing only contactless payments).

Around the same time I heard that Bulk Barn, the largest bulk foods store in Canada, is no longer allowing single-use containers. Now, more and more places are announcing similar policies. And I started seeing people ask – is this the end of zero waste?

No, coronavirus is not the end of zero waste. Here’s why.

Coronavirus and the rise of single-use disposables

Before I even begin, I want to emphasise that we are in a unprecedented situation, and it is hard for any business owner to know how to react or what to do to reduce the spread of disease and keep their business running. I think many stores want to do ‘something’ and without clear guidelines as to what this might be – other than shutting doors, which isn’t an easy business decision even if it’s great to prevent the spread of disease – they are trying to take action however they can.

So we might have our opinions on what is inconsistent and what is overreacting and what is sensible and what is necessary. But they are just our opinions, and even the experts are in unchartered territory right now.

Something I read at the weekend that really stuck with me was this: “When you’re dealing with exponential growth [which is what experts are saying we have with infection rates] the time to act is when it seems too early.”

So let’s save our judgement, because we really don’t know.

But what I know to be true – whether we see more and more businesses switching to single-use disposables over reusables because of coronavirus, and even if those businesses decide to keep policies in place after the threat has passed (assuming that it does), is that it doesn’t spell the end of zero waste.

As so often happens in the media, it is being framed all wrong.

Coronavirus can’t touch what zero waste really is

We could have a conversation about what ‘waste’ really means, and whether single-use disposables are truly a ‘waste’ if they are helping reduce the spread of disease.

(After all, almost all of us would argue that hospitals are a great place to use single-use plastic, for exactly this reason.)

But we are not going to have that conversation. Because that keeps the conversation around reusables, and anyone who has been trying to live low waste or zero waste for more than about five minutes knows that the choices we make and habits we form are so much more than reusable coffee cups and takeaway containers.

Zero waste is not – at its heart – about reusables. Zero waste is a mindset. It’s an attitude, a philosophy, a goal, whatever you might prefer to call it. Reusables make zero waste living easier, but they aren’t a make-or-break.

The idea that zero waste is over because we can no longer purchase takeaway coffee from a multinational corporation in a reusable cup is missing the bigger picture. Takeaway coffee generally – there are bigger issues, when it comes to waste. Yes, as a society (well, in western parts of the world, and for the more privileged part of society) we might drink a lot of takeaway coffee, but it’s a small part of the global waste footprint.

Regardless, it is disheartening to see businesses take a step backwards (in terms of sustainability) and make these choices – even when they are justified for other reasons.

Rather than feel frustrated, I wanted to remind you of all the ways that we can try to live with less waste. Because there are plenty of things we can still do, and I like to focus on the positive (and the practical).

Zero waste things you can do in spite of coronavirus

Think creatively about the packaging you need to use. You might not have a choice about being able to use your own containers to the store. You might not currently have a choice with which store you buy your groceries from (if your preferred or regular store has run out of what you need). But maybe you can think creatively about what you buy or how you buy it to reduce your packaging (particularly single-use plastic).

Could you choose the unwrapped produce? The bigger pack sizes? The options without individual packs inside packs? The brands packaged in cardboard? Could you by in bulk (rather than from bulk) and split a larger amount with friends or family? If you can’t do it all, go for the small wins. It all helps.

Make something from scratch. Whether you simply haven’t been able to get something you usually buy pre-prepared, or your simply faced with more at-home time than you’re used to, now is a great time to learn to make something from scratch. Been wanting to try DIY nut milk since forever? Wondered about making bread, or crackers? Fancy giving DIY moisturiser a go?

Perhaps you can use this situation as an opportunity to try ‘one more thing’.

Reduce your food waste. You might not be able to choose whether or not you can BYO packaging, but you can work to ensure you’re not wasting the food that you buy. With the panic buying we’re currently seeing, it makes even more sense to ensure we are using up what we actually buy before it goes bad.

Make sure you are storing food properly so that it lasts, clear out your freezer to make room for leftovers, make a ‘use me first’ shelf in the fridge so everyone in your household knows what needs eating first.

(I’ve got a free resource coming soon all about reducing food waste, so keep your eyes peeled.)

Compost your food scraps. This is different to reducing food waste. This is ensuring that those inedible bits (cores, pips, stems, outer leaves etc) are not put into the landfill / general waste bin. Whether you can set up a system at home – I’ve written about composting, worm warms and bokashi systems if you’d like to know what your options are – or whether you make the most of community composting services, this is a great way to reduce waste.

Now is a great time to set something up – or at least start doing the research.

Buy less stuff. The best thing you can do to reduce your waste is to buy less stuff. Even ‘sustainable’ stuff has a footprint. A big part of the zero waste lifestyle is making do, and making things last. Maybe that means getting stuff fixed. It’s extremely unlikely you’ll never need to buy anything again ever – but as a general rule, the less you buy, the more sustainable you are and the less waste you create.

If you need something, see if you can borrow, or find it for free on Freecycle, Freegle or Buy Nothing. Libraries don’t just lend out physical products, they lend out ebooks, online movies and electronic versions of magazines too – so even if you can’t get to your physical library, you might have options. If you need to buy something, check out the second-hand options first.

(Whether this is possible will depend on what it is and where you’re living – and what the isolation restrictions are – but it is still a consideration).

If you do need to buy something brand new, don’t feel guilty about that. There are better ways to use your energy. Just try to make those purchases mindfully.

Learn more about the issues you care about. You might not be able to take action now in all the ways you’d like, but you can use this time to read up on topics that interest you, try out some new skills, and connect with like-minded people (even if only online, for now).

There are so many great books (or ebooks and audiobooks) and useful blog posts. And courses and videos. And social media pages and groups.

Take the time to get informed.

Write letters and apply pressure to those in power (or make a plan to). It might seem like an inopportune moment to be hassling your supermarket about their single-use plastic packaging policy, or asking your local government member to support a plan to divest in fossil fuels, but these issues aren’t going away, even if they are buried under more pressing needs.

(In fact, some governments and companies are using the fact that others are distracted to push through unpopular decisions, such as the announcement this week by the Victorian government to lift the moratorium on onshore drilling for gas.)

If you have the time and headspace, you might want to use it to start (or continue) to apply pressure on businesses, organisations or government officials to demand change, or ask for answers on policy and decision-making.

You don’t have to send any letters or emails you write straightaway. If the timing seems insensitive or you know it won’t be looked at, you can prepare for when things are settled, do your research, and be ready to go.

Keep supporting your local zero waste store, or independent local businesses, even if they temporarily have to change their policy and disallow reusables. You’ll want them to be there when things get back to normal, so keep supporting them whilst things get tough.

It’s a lot easier for big multinationals to weather disruption than small stores. They need our help.

I don’t want to sugar coat anything – we are in the strangest of times. There are lots of things to be concerned about. But multinational companies opting for disposable coffee cups isn’t one of them. We are better placed focusing our energy elsewhere.

Now I’d love to hear from you! How are you feeling about waste and sustainability issues – have they slipped from your radar, are they there in the back of your mind, or are they at the forefront? Are you coping or are you struggling right now? There’s no right or wrong answers here and definitely no judgement so tell us how you’re feeling and where you’re at, and share any ideas or thoughts in the comments below. We’re in this together.

How I changed my mind about living zero waste and plastic-free (a story in 5 stages)

A friend of mine volunteers at a local food rescue organisation, which collects mostly pre-packaged out-of-date (well, out-of-date as described by the packaging), damaged and excess food, and redistributes to charities around the city.

Not all the food that is rescued is edible, but some of what isn’t edible for humans is still good for chickens. Yesterday, she dropped around some rescued food for my girls.

Like most of what they rescue, it came wrapped in plastic. I gave the contents to my ladies (who gobbled up the beetroot slaw, tolerated the broccoli, picked at the snow peas and snubbed the watercress completely), and rinsed out the packaging ready to take to redcycle for recycling.

Wet single-use plastic packaging has a really yuck feel to it; it was literally making my skin crawl as I washed it out. It got me thinking about how my feelings for and perception of plastic has changed over the years. At one point I’d have thought nothing of a fridge full of this plastic (oh, and I wouldn’t have been washing it out, nor recycling it); now, having just four pieces on the draining board makes me feel uncomfortable.

There was also a time, in the middle, where I’d have refused point blank to even allow this plastic into my house.

So why has my view on plastic and the way I live zero waste changed over the years? For each of the stages, I can pinpoint a reason why I made the choice, and a reason why that changed. After all, trying to live sustainably in never black and white, and there’s a lot of nuance around different issues.

Over time, I’ve changed my mind a few times. Perhaps you’ve come to different conclusions and made different choices. Or perhaps you can relate to some of these stages, too.

Just starting out (the learning and ‘making mistakes’ stage)

I decided to give up plastic in June 2012, after watching the documentary Bag It. Pretty much overnight, I changed my perspective on plastic completely. I went from the person buying all the plastic whilst complaining that ‘somebody should do something about that’ – and thinking I was some kind of sustainability superhero because I had reusable shopping bags – to realising that there was so much more I could do.

Changing your perspective doesn’t mean knowing all the answers, or doing all the things. For me, it meant starting out by working on changing my habits.

My first focus was avoiding single-use plastic and packaging, particularly when food shopping and buying bathroom and cleaning products.

One of the first changes I made was buying a (plastic) KeepCup, and I didn’t see any irony in buying a plastic cup to refuse plastic (although at the time, KeepCup was the only brand on the market and they hadn’t invented a glass version yet).

I did buy a few other things, but I was lucky in those days that there weren’t a lot of products to entice me with clever marketing. Someone making the same choices today could easily spend a small fortune!

(Which is fine if you both have small fortune and will use everything you buy – and often. But it is an expensive way to learn what you do and don’t actually need.)

There were a lot of mistakes, in the early days. Packets with sneaky plastic, forgetfulness, little awareness around greenwashing and so taking claims like ‘eco-friendly’ on products at face value.

But the more I learned, the better at refusing plastic I got.

From ‘plastic-free’ to ‘zero waste’ (the understanding waste stage)

About 6 months in, I visited a recycling facility (or more technically, a materials recovery facility – which sorts materials but doesn’t actually recycle them).

It made me realise that switching out plastic for other materials (paper, cardboard, glass and metal) didn’t make much sense if these things were also used only once too.

So I committed to reduce all single-use packaging, not just plastic.

I also started thinking about all plastic, not just the single-use stuff. I began to choose non-plastic replacements for items, and non-plastic reusables.

Plastic things – even reusables – still tend to break or wear out (compared to their plastic-free alternatives), and the less I used plastic, the less I wanted to use plastic.

I wondered if I’d done the wrong thing by buying plastic reusables. I purchased plastic-free reusables, but then felt conflicted because buying new stuff (even plastic-free stuff) uses resources and creates waste.

The plastic-free zero waste purist (the ‘uncompromising’ stage)

By this time, all of my habits were embedded, and those who knew me knew that I didn’t use plastic and was serious about reducing my waste. More and more solutions were appearing – from more people writing about waste and sharing ideas, to online and social networks allowing people to share stuff, and more bulk stores and companies focusing on waste reduction with their products and services.

Living with no plastic and no waste was getting easier. I was also testing my boundaries, refusing to let plastic through my door and really pushing myself to create as little waste as possible.

This was the time when the media started talking about zero waste, and there was a lot of focus on fitting your annual waste in a jam jar. I did it myself for a year.

This was definitely the least pleasant stage to be in – both for me, and probably those close to me.

So why was it unpleasant?

Well, I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself. Don’t get me wrong, I love a challenge and I love working out ways to solve problems and reduce my waste. But the ‘waste-in-a-jam-jar’ year meant focusing on the minutiae in a way that never really felt comfortable with me. It just didn’t feel like the best use of my time or energy.

I felt like a fraud for those things I didn’t put in the jar – like the glass bottle of washing up liquid I smashed on my concrete floor, or a label I tossed in a bin whilst out in a moment of forgetfulness.

I also had a few instances where people I knew told me that I made them feel guilty. Not by necessarily even doing or saying anything (although I’m not always known for my tact) – sometimes just my being there made people feel guilty about their choices. Which was rubbish for all of us.

And there were definitely times here when I was more…robust…with my expectations of others. It wasn’t deliberate – sometimes when you’ve come so far you can forget where you were, and that others are still there.

Honestly, it might have been sustainable for the planet, but it didn’t feel sustainable for me (or those around me).

Everything is interconnected (the ‘joining the dots’ stage)

The more I learned about waste, the more I discovered about the waste that happens before stuff comes through our front doors, and the more I understood waste as something bigger than packaging or plastic.

I let go of chasing the ideal of being perfectly zero waste, and started thinking more broadly about the issues.

Waste is about much more than glass jars or plastic bags.

For example, buying food packaged without plastic that then goes bad in the fridge (because the plastic is what helps keeps it fresh) is just creating a different kind of waste.

Or buying a brand new ethically made and ‘sustainably sourced’ thing from overseas (with brand new materials and a big carbon footprint) creates more waste than making do with the less-shiny thing available in the second-hand store.

It’s a hollow victory when you can cram your annual waste into a jam jar, but the majority of society is carrying on as normal. I became less interested in my personal waste ‘achievement’ and more interested in how to create change in my community.

It seemed – still seems – like a better use of my energy to share what I know and help others make changes than sit back and feel like my job is done.

Not sweating the small stuff (the ‘bigger picture’ stage)

I’ve realised that I care too much about too many different aspects of waste to focus single-mindedly on one issue.

I care about plastic waste, but I also care about food waste.

I care about supporting ethical and sustainable businesses producing responsible products, but I care about keeping resources in use by choosing second-hand, and reducing consumption by making do.

I care about my own personal waste footprint, and I also care about making waste reduction more accessible to others.

I’m keen to reduce the waste that I create, and I’m also interested in reducing waste further up the waste stream.

So now, I try to let the small and inconsequential stuff go in recognition of the bigger picture.

I’ll refuse a plastic bag at the store, but I’ll take a plastic sack filled with spent coffee grounds from a cafe (to put in my compost bin) that might otherwise go to landfill.

I won’t buy plastic-packaged food for myself, but I’ll accept it rescued from the bin (to feed myself or the chickens).

I’ll reuse plastic containers in existence rather than buying a brand new metal (plastic-free) version.

I‘m not saying that these choices are the best or right choices, they are simply what work for me, at this moment. The way I feel about plastic and waste has changed over the years, and I’m sure it will change again in the future.

Navigating waste is often complicated, and there tend to be trade-offs one way or another.

I wanted to share this because I really don’t think there’s one way to tackle waste. It can feel like a minefield because there are so many choices and so much conflicting advice. It’s an imperfect world and whilst it isn’t always possible to know what the best choice is, the important thing is that we try.

My advice is: don’t sweat the small stuff. Just do your best.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you changed your thoughts around plastic and waste as you’ve started making changes? Have your priorities shifted or stayed the same? Do you prefer to focus on one aspect of waste, or try to navigate the different aspects? Have you experienced these stages… or different ones? Any other thoughts? Please leave a comment below!

Is Plastic-Free the Perfect Option? (Hint: Not Always)

It’s now been 6 years since I first took the Plastic Free July challenge (all the way back in 2012) and made the decision to make this plastic-free living lark a way of life. What an adventure it has been!

It completely made me re-evaluate the way I think about waste, the types of products I buy, where I source my food, the kinds of products I put on my skin, even the work that I do.

Of course, some of the decisions I made at the start of the journey aren’t the choices I’d make today.

However, I continue to share them, because they were decisions that I made at the time, and I think it is important to explain why I made these choices (along with what I might do differently now, or what the next step might be).

There are people starting out at exactly the point that I started out, and sharing the choices I made can help shine the light on possible alternatives and solutions.

I never share any solution as the perfect solution. I’ve talked about this before: how there’s often compromise, and we need to personally decide on our priorities and make the choices that work best for us in our own circumstances.

However, if the focus is plastic-free (or zero waste) living – which, hopefully it is! –  then there are better choices. Not perfect, but better.

I wanted to talk about a few of the choices I’ve made, why they are not perfect, but why I still think they are “better”.

Lining a Bin with Newspaper

When I went plastic-free back in 2012, one of my first dilemmas was how to line my bin without a plastic bag. I still took the “free” plastic bags from the supermarket and used them to line my bin.

A friend suggested newspaper, and I made the switch.

I wrote a post back in 2013 (it’s one of my most widely shared posts ever) entitled “How to Line Your Rubbish Bin without a Plastic Bag”.

I wanted to share with others how I’d switched from lining my bin with a plastic bag to lining my bin with newspaper. It is what worked for me.

Every year this post resurfaces at Plastic Free July time, and I get the same comments and questions, without fail.

“Who even gets a newspaper these days?”

Actually, quite a lot of people in Perth, which is where I live. There is a free community newspaper delivered to most suburbs. At the time, I had a free community newspaper delivered, and I read it, so it made sense to use it for something else.

A lot of cafes in Perth (there are a bazillion of them, at least) get newspapers for customers to read, as do libraries and workplaces.

There’s no need to buy a newspaper to line the bin. This is about using what I already had. It might not work for everyone, but it does work for some of us.

“Using newspaper is hardly eco-friendly, all those trees.”

I didn’t call that post “the absolutely most eco-friendly way ever to line your bin” for a reason. It is simply a plastic-free solution. (Although, when was the last time you saw a paper bag stuck in a tree, or choking sea life?)

Yes, making paper uses a lot of resources (trees, energy and also water). In fact, paper bags have three times the carbon footprint of a plastic bag.

Whether newspaper is the same I’m not sure, as it tends to have a lot of recycled content (whereas most paper bags do not), but of course, all materials have a footprint. Which leads me to…

“Why not compost and then there is no bin liner required at all?”

Exactly. Great idea and what I do now.

“Now” being the key word.

If you’d said to me at the start of Plastic Free July, “hey, newspaper bin liners have a footprint, you need to set up a compost bin and a worm farm and a bokashi system so you’re not throwing away any of your organic matter” then I would most likely have had a meltdown.

I was busy trying to find solutions to every other thing!

Yes, I did set up a worm farm, and a bokashi system, and I did do away with my newspaper bin liners. But it took 2 years to get to that point!

Buying Plastic Reusables

Something that also comes up often when talking about different types of reusables, is the fact that some are made of plastic.

“How can you say you are plastic-free when you use reusables made of / containing plastic?”

When I first went plastic-free back in 2012, I purchased a plastic KeepCup. Back then, KeepCup were the only brand of reusable barista-standard coffee cup, and they only had plastic cups (they didn’t launch their glass range until 2014).

My goal was to reduce single-use plastic. That is what Plastic Free July is all about. The reusable plastic KeepCup served its purpose – I haven’t drank out of a takeaway coffee cup since.

It’s estimated that a reusable coffee cup needs to be used about 15 times to offset the energy / footprint, versus a single-use disposable cup. Definitely achieved.

In time, I decided that plastic reusables weren’t something I personally wanted to choose in future. I also didn’t love drinking hot drinks out of plastic, so I purchased a glass one.

However reusable plastics still work for some. Whether it’s the portability, resistance to breakage, the need to be collapsible or something else, there are reasons that people still choose plastic reusables, and these reasons are perfectly valid.

There’s another really good reason to purchase reusables made out of plastic in my view, and that is when they are made out of 100% recycled plastic.

As my plastic-free living journey deepened, I decided I wanted to steer clear of ALL plastic. Over time, my view of this has mellowed because I realise that we still have an issue to deal with – legacy plastic.

If we banned plastic water bottles tomorrow, there are still millions already in existence. What do we do with them? Recycling them into something worthwhile and built to last seems like a good idea to me.

Recycled PET shopping bags and produce bags have a much lower carbon footprint than new cotton or cloth bags (cotton requires huge amounts of water to grow and is often exposed to huge amounts of pesticides also).

I think these kinds of reusables definitely have a place in a “plastic-free” world.

Personally, I like a mix. I like to keep my plastic-use to a minimum, but I do find these bags immensely useful and practical.

Shopping at Bulk Bin Stores that Use Plastic Bins (Which is Pretty Much All of Them)

I talk about bulk food shopping on my website and also on Instagram, and more than once I’ve had comments about the materials the bulk containers are made of.

“Isn’t it ironic / hypocritical saying plastic-free when the containers are made of plastic?”

Personally, I think not. My local store in Perth is part of The Source Bulk Foods, who have more than 40 bulk stores in Australia. There are lots of other bulk stores in Perth and across the country. I’ve never seen one with zero plastic storage, and when you think about the cost and practicalities of only using metal, glass or wood, it’s easy to see why it’s not common.

These bulk stores (with their plastic bins) make it possible for thousands of customers to shop packaging-free. They generate packaging themselves, sure, but far less than if we were all buying our individually packaged everything from the supermarket.

Plus, they are working with suppliers to develop ways to reduce packaging further upstream.

Zero waste isn’t perfect, and plastic-free living doesn’t have all the solutions, but we get closer all the time.

If you’re starting out with plastic-free, and are finding the apparent conflict a little tricky to navigate, know that we have all been there. It’s easy to get lost in a minefield of ethical dilemmas when it comes to plastic-free living.

There’s always someone keen to point out why something isn’t perfect. If we are just at the beginning of our journey, there is nothing more deflating than making a choice that we feel is better, only to be told that actually, it isn’t.

The only thing we can do is to make conscious decisions. To make the best choice you can with what you know today. Maybe in the future you’d choose differently, but we can’t make decisions about things we don’t know yet.

Plastic-free living is not about being perfect, it’s about making better choices.

Now I’d love to hear from you! How do you feel about plastics in your plastic-free life? Do you own and use any plastic reusables, or is it something you steer clear of? Is it something that you’ve changed your mind about along the way? Where are you willing to compromise, and where are you not? I’d love to know what you think so please leave a comment below!

A Guide to Plastic Straw Alternatives (+ Encouraging Venues to go Straw Free)

When it comes to reducing our personal plastic use, and also tackling plastic pollution, it’s not a case of targeting everything at once. For most people that’s overwhelming and a recipe for giving up.

A more realistic approach is choosing one thing to focus on, or maybe a couple of things, and work towards making these changes before embarking on the next thing.

Rethinking single-use plastic items (and particularly plastic packaging) is a great place to start. These kinds of items always feature in the top 10 items found in beach clean-ups and litter pick-ups. They create a litter problem because they are lightweight and easily escape into the environment.

They are also items that are easy to avoid or replace. There are usually multiple solutions.

One of the top 10 items found in litter pick-ups and beach clean-ups is plastic straws. When we are trying to reduce our plastic footprint – and encourage others to do so – tackling plastic straws is an easy first step.

Plastic Straws are Not Recycled

One plastic straw might seem small, but it’s the quantity that is used that causes the issue. It is estimated that Americans use 500 million plastic straws daily.

Typically plastic straws are made from polypropylene (PP, plastic #5) or less commonly, polystyrene (PS, plastic #6). Polystyrene isn’t always the white, fluffy looking stuff – that’s actually expanded polystyrene. Straws use the non-expanded type, which is also used for coat hangers and bread tags, is coloured (or black) and looks nothing like the white version.

Plastic straws aren’t easily recycled. Partly this is because they are made from a plastic that isn’t commonly recycled. They are also too small and light to be separated successfully with machinery at the Material Recovery Facilities.

Even when polypropylene and polystyrene is recycled, it’s generally mixed with virgin (new) plastic to maintain the quality, so it’s not a closed loop.

Plastic Straws Can Be Refused

The great thing about plastic straws is that they can be refused. It’s literally as simple as ordering a drink and saying “no straw, please”.

Reusable Straw Options Exist

Reusable straw options exist, in glass (toughened glass that is similar to that used in Pyrex), metal (usually stainless steel) and bamboo. Different lengths and widths are available; which one is best is personal choice.

Personally I like the feeling of glass over stainless steel, but I do carry a stainless steel straw in my reusable cutlery set as it fits.

Cleaning brushes are just as readily available to remove debris.

(If you’d like to invest in a reusable straw, you might find my worldwide list of independent ethical online stores useful.)

Increasingly, venues are providing reusable straws for their customers rather than single-use disposables. These tend to be glass or stainless steel which can be sterilized. As with all kitchenware, these will be cleaned thoroughly and sanitized between customers.

Venues Can Provide Single-Use (Plastic-Free) Straws

Banning plastic straws is not the same as banning straws altogether. Banning plastic straws does not mean discriminating against people who need to use straws because they are elderly, frail or have mobility issues.

Banning plastic straws doesn’t mean that those few drinks that really work better with a straw (frozen drinks or fresh drinking coconuts) are off the menu.

Single-use alternatives that are plastic-free include FSC-certified paper straws, bamboo straws and straws that are literally made from straw. (Straw – that’s what straws were made from until plastic took over. Hence the name!)

Some venues provide multiple options: this cafe in Paros, Greece offers both bamboo and stainless steel reusables for its customers, as well as single-use straw straws.

Single-Use Straws by Request Only

Many venues are beginning to recognize the waste and litter created by straws, replace their plastic straws with non-plastic alternatives, and/or offer straws by request only. Venues deal with hundreds or thousands of customers every day, so one venue deciding to go straw free can have a real impact.

As individuals, we can change our own personal habits, but we can also try to encourage our local cafes, restaurants and food vendors to join the movement. Consider approaching your favourites and asking if they’d consider removing plastic-straws.

There are a number of groups working to encourage more businesses to get on board. Three that map out participating vendors are:

The Last Plastic Straw (USA)

The Last Straw (Australia)

Straw Wars (UK)

Tackling Plastic Straws is a Conversation Starter to the Wider Issues of Plastic

The thing I love about the plastic straw problem is that solving it really requires very little effort on our part. It doesn’t require changing habits or even remembering to bring reusables. It starts with saying “no thanks”.

But at the same time, it’s a powerful way to begin the conversation with people who might not know about the plastic pollution issue, or who haven’t given much thought to the burden of single-use plastic.

Every time we say “no thanks”, we have an opportunity to talk about why. We can talk about why we are avoiding single-use plastics – whether it’s to use less resources, to reduce litter, to protect the oceans, for health reasons, or because we simply love a challenge. We can talk about the alternatives to single-use plastics. We can share success stories and examples.

We have the power to change our own habits, and we have the power to influence others. We can influence by leading by example, and we can influence by beginning conversations. That’s how we spread ideas; that’s how ideas become movements; and that’s how we bring about change.

Plastic straws are just the beginning. That is exactly where we need to start.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you use a reusable straw, or simply go without? If you prefer reusables, do you have a favourite type? Are there any cafes near you that offer straws only on request, or offer reusables for customers? Have you noticed the awareness rising over the last few months? Please share your thoughts below!