Are Drinking Straws Dangerous?

By Emily DiFrisco and Jackie Nuñez

Have you ever seen the science experiment where a plastic straw punctures a raw potato? How about the one where a single sheet of paper holds the weight of a textbook? Both experiments demonstrate the strength of the cylinder—one of the most structurally sound geometrical shapes, regardless of the material they’re made out of—because they disperse stress throughout their entire form.

It’s no surprise then that plastic straws are dangerous to wildlife. Due to their small size, straws are often mistaken for food by animals and because of their cylindrical shape, straws can cause suffocation and death to the animal. In at least one instance, the stomach of a penguin was perforated by a plastic straw. In another, in a video seen around the world, a sea turtle’s nostril bled as a plastic straw was removed.

So plastic straws harm wildlife, but do they injure people as well? Yes, actually. About 1,400 people visit the emergency room  every year due to injuries from drinking straws. The majority of incidents involve young children and lacerations to the mouth, abrasions to the cornea, or insertions into the ear and nose. A common scenario involves a child falling with a straw or poking a sibling.

Although similar injuries occur with adults, the more typical instances are poking an eye or nose when drinking from the rim of a glass and forgetting about the straw in the drink, when out at a restaurant or bar. This begs the question: “why cocktail straws?” Cocktails straws are too small to suck out of (so they give you two) and a possible hazard.

Last year, stainless steel straws sold by Starbucks were recalled due to laceration injuries to children. There were three reports of mouth injuries to young children while drinking. The version of the straw Starbucks sold was a straight cylinder with no bend, so while drinking, the sharp end was “aimed at” the hard palate of the mouth. Reportedly, the Starbucks straws were made with lower grade metal tubing (thinner walls), creating a sharper edge and more potential for injury.

Whether made of stainless steel, glass, paper, or bamboo, there is no question that reusable or compostable paper straws are better for the environment than plastic. More than 500 million plastic straws are used every day in the U.S., typically enjoyed for minutes before being discarded. Too small to be recycled, plastic straws will persist in the environment well past our future generations lifetimes, breaking into tiny pieces over time.

Plastic straws are the poster child for needless single-use plastic. They harm wildlife and our environment. But we ALL can do something to help. When out at a restaurant, simply say “no straw please” to your server. Take the next step by asking them to serve straws only upon request and consider switching from plastic straws to reusable or compostable options.

If you do use a reusable or compostable paper straw, please exercise caution while drinking. Remember the penguin and the sea turtle. Say no to plastic straws and help save the planet, the animals, and yourself one sip at a time!

Emily DiFrisco is the director of digital strategy for Plastic Pollution Coalition.

Jackie Nuñez is the founder of The Last Plastic Straw.

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