As the plastic straw debate gains momentum, there is a practical matter to consider: Can plastic straws be effectively recycled?
Even Steve Alexander, president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers trade group, isn't sure. And he knows a lot about recycling plastics.
“This is uncharted territory,” Alexander said. “I have to tell you I don't think we know and I'm being very honest.
“We don't know, in all candor. We are as intrigued by all of this as I think everybody else is,” he said.
Plastic straws are a particular and growing focus of environmentalists who see them as an unnecessary item, except in certain situations.
Some are suggesting the use of paper straws s an alternative. But there are questions about their durability compared with their plastic counterparts.
Will Flower has spent his professional life in the waste and recycling industry and is currently vice president of corporate and public affairs at Winters Bros. Waste Systems on Long Island, New York.
He was previously president of Green Stream Recycling in Brookhaven, N.Y., a Winters Bros. co-owned recycling facility where he oversaw operations.
As a matter of practicality, he does not envision any efforts to capture plastic straws in the municipal recycling stream anytime soon.
“In all the years running the recycling plant ... I can't even recall seeing a straw in the processing line. They really don't show up in the curbside program, which is probably good,” Flower said. “You have to realize that recycling has changed greatly over the past year primarily due to the restrictions that China has put into place. As a result, recyclers on Long Island and across the country are reexamining the entire recycling process, including what materials they will accept for recycling.
“You are seeing more recyclers and more municipalities trying to limit what they will take in. I think there are very few, if any, programs that are actually expanding at this point. I don't think straws are going to become a recycled commodity,” Flower said.
Material recovery facilities have been designed over time to efficiently handle popular items such as plastic bottles and containers, metal cans, cardboard and newsprint. Optical sorters are increasingly being used to capture more materials.
Plastic containers and bottles are separated by resin type through puffs of air that are deployed after the optical sorters identify resin types.
But those air extraction systems would be hard-pressed to handle something as challenging as a smaller, tubular straw, Flower said.
“They are very light. They are thin, and I think it would be a real challenge. I've never seen them in a recycling plant,” Flower said. “I don't see them on the inbound, and I've never seen them on the outbound.”
Alexander believes that the creation of plastic packaging sorting protocols will help answer the question of whether it is even possible to effectively recycle plastic straws.
APR has already finished creating protocols regarding packaging size, the use of near infrared optical technology to determine resin content, and any potential metal components integrated into packaging.
The trade group, with the help of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc., is now working on a final protocol that will consider both two-dimensional and three-dimensional aspects of packaging as it goes through the sortation process.
It's this work, the APR president said, that will help give his group a clearer picture about whether straws and other small plastic items can be effectively captured at material recovery facilities.
“The reality is if you are not sorting it properly, then all you're doing is making trash,” he said. There also needs to be a market for the material.
Alexander readily admits this is not an issue APR has dealt with much but is hopeful the new sortation protocol will help answer questions.
“I think what's bringing this to a head is it's a visible something that every consumer knows about and sees and touches every day,” Alexander said about straws. “It's an easy poster child for an issue that people feel strongly about.”
“A mixing bowl of events,” he said, including the China ban on importation of recyclables, growing awareness about marine debris, enhanced media interest and the work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on creating a circular economy for plastics has contributed to this focus on straws.
It's a focus that even has taken Lynn Dyer by surprise as president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute.
As leader of that trade group, which is material neutral, Dyer has been talking to plenty of people about straws these days.
“I think when this story and the topic of straws first broke a year-plus ago, I don't think anybody would have guessed that we would be where we are today in terms of the level of interest specifically in plastic straws,” she said.
“I've got 20 years under my belt at FPI, and I can't remember the last time we've seen this kind of outcry on a specific food-service packaging item,” Dyer said.
The FPI president believes a combination of factors is pushing heightened interest in straws these days, including a strong push by environmental groups as well as legislators who see this topic as an “easy win” to show opposition.
Brand owners, seeing other brand owners take action, also feel the need to get involved in the issue, Dyer said. “And it kind of snowballs.”
All this attention on plastic straws means there will be more opportunity for paper straws to reemerge in popularity and gives companies the opportunity to do more on the research and development side to create alternatives, she said.
Just as Dyer is surprised by the momentum of the issue during the past year, she is also unclear how this story ends.
“That's a hard one to answer. A year ago, I would absolutely have said it's not an endangered species. ... I would have said this is a blip. Now, perhaps, it's a little bit longer term. But what's next? There's always a what's next — the next story that's going to grab everyone's attention,” she said.
A key in the discussion is not getting hung up on one widely used estimate that 500 million straws are used in the United States each day, she said.
“There's been an awful lot of stories that have pushed back on that estimate. We certainly wouldn't agree with that estimate either,” she said. “I have said let's not get focused on the number, whether it's 500 million straws a day or 50 million straws a day; those straws shouldn't be litter. And that's really what it comes down to. It's not necessarily the existence of the straws. It's the fact that somebody has purposely littered it on land or in waterways, and that can't happen.”