Plastic straws have an extremely bad rep when it comes to their environmental impact. Several countries have even sought to ban their use in an attempt to minimize the harm that they cause. Despite reusable straw options being available, disposable paper straws are a popular choice – cheap and convenient, you can understand why. But, unfortunately, these can’t be recycled easily and tend to end up in landfill. What are the other alternatives for their disposal? Are paper straws biodegradable and can they be added to your home compost pile?
Firstly, what are paper straws made from?
Determining what an item is made from helps us decide if is biodegradable (and compostable) or not. This should be quite straight forward with paper straws – they are just made from paper, right? Well, sometimes. As with other paper items that come into contact with food and liquids, paper straws tend to go soggy during use. To minimize this, manufacturers often coat it in a thin layer of plastic or beeswax.
So, are paper straws biodegradable?
For paper straws to be classed as biodegradable they must have the ability to be broken down by micro-organism such as bacteria. Unfortunately, these bacteria are only interested in natural materials, not synthetic ones such as plastic.
As follows, paper straws will only biodegrade fully if they are made from only paper (or paper coated in beeswax, a natural material). If they contain plastic, they will only partially biodegrade. The paper part will biodegrade, essentially returning to nature. The plastic coating, conversely, will break into smaller and smaller pieces over time. These tiny pieces of plastic have the potential to cause great harm to nature.
It should be noted that to biodegrade, an item must be in suitable conditions. Landfill does not provide these. Items are packed together tightly with limited airflow and moisture is minimal. This is far from ideal when it comes to biodegradation. You should always be mindful of this when buying a biodegradable product. A timeframe of months is, generally, quoted for biodegradation of paper items. However, in landfill this is highly unlikely.
Are paper straws compostable?
Although the speed of uptake varies from country to country, home composting has become increasingly popular in recent years. It helps divert non-recyclable items from landfill whilst providing a nutrient-rich fertilizer to use in the garden.
Often the terms ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ are thought to mean the same thing and used interchangeably. Unfortunately, this is not the case – all biodegradable items are not compostable. If an item is fully biodegradable but it is, say, saturated in harmful chemicals it will not be suitable for the compost bin. This could contaminate the pile and, ultimately, your garden.
However, for an item to be fit for composting it must be biodegradable – all compostable items are biodegradable but not all biodegradable items are compostable! Since plastic is non-biodegradable, paper straws that are coated with it won’t be suitable. They will need to go in the trash, unfortunately. Beeswax coated paper straws, on the other hand, are suitable for composting.
Paper straws will add to the carbon-rich ‘brown’ element of your pile. As always, monitor your pile regularly to ensure it is healthy. Composting is a trial-and-error process, tweaks may be needed as you go to ensure you provide the optimal conditions for the ingredients to break down.
Some considerations when composting paper straws…
Paper straws are straightforward for composting – they should only take a matter of months to decompose. You can speed up this process by cutting the straw into smaller pieces. Smaller pieces equal a larger surface area. The micro-organisms will thank you for it by getting to work extra quick! Another advantage of cutting the straws up is that they can be distributed evenly throughout the pile, spreading their ‘brown’, carbon-richness as they go.
The bottom line
Composting your (plastic-free) paper straws is a great way to prevent them going to landfill – despite being made from paper, they can persist there for many years. They will contribute nicely to the carbon-rich ‘browns’ side of your compost pile ratio. However, here at TOTP, we always recommend you opt for reusable alternative where available and convenient to do so. In the straw world there are plenty of options, from stainless steel to bamboo. As well as avoiding the issues of waste, the environmental impact of endless paper straw production is also minimized. But, ultimately, the question is – do you even need a straw?