How to recycle a plastic straw

There is often confusion when it comes to recycling single-use plastic straws. Some claim that plastic straws are recyclable, while others say that you are not able to recycle straws at all and that eco-friendly alternatives are still the best option to help protect the environment. To help clear up some of the confusion for you, we break down the answer to the age-old question: are straws recyclable?

What are drinking straws made of?

The most common material of choice for single-use plastic straws include Polypropylene and Polyethylene. These are both by-products of petroleum, which makes it inexpensive and easy to make. The propylene gas molecules are combined to make a resin for a number of products. Polypropylene and Polyethylene are commonly used for other plastic items such as to-go containers that you might get at fast food chains and bottle caps from single-use water or soda bottles. The durable material holds up well in liquids, which makes it a popular option for fast food places and restaurants. Since it is inexpensive and easy to produce, it easily accumulates as waste, which can be damaging to the environment.

straws in a cup

What are the challenges with disposing of plastic straws?

Although drinking straws are technically made from recyclable materials, there are some problems that make these straws hard to recycle, especially in a mechanical recycling sorter that many recyclers use. Polypropylene and Polyethylene are such common materials for straws because these plastics are easily bendable, thin, and pliable. While that makes it convenient when sipping hot and cold drinks, plastic straws can cause some issues after you throw them into the recycling bin.

Weight of plastic straws

The lightweight materials of plastic straws mean that they can easily get carried away by the wind when the waste management company truck lifts your curbside recycling bin to dump the materials into the truck.

Impact on landfills

Like most traditional disposable plastic items, plastic straws may remain largely unchanged in the landfill for hundreds of years.  These sit in the landfill over time, and contrary to popular belief, actually do not fully biodegrade. The waste has no benefit to people and the plastics break down into smaller pieces known as microplastics. The size of the tiny pieces of plastic stays as a waste item in our environment forever. Although this doesn’t sound very positive, there are a few very effective solutions you’ll read about shortly. 

Size of plastic straws

At the processing plant, they can likewise fall through the cracks of the mechanical recycling sorter and make the sorting process more onerous. Straws are small compared to other larger items, and as a result, many times plastic straws are often rejected by recycling programs or centers.

Impact on marine life

In addition, many of these single-use plastic straws eventually end up in our oceans, either as tiny pieces of plastic or even as whole articulated straws. This can be damaging to marine life, such as sea turtles, since these strange objects are often mistaken for food. Since many people do not see this firsthand, they may not realize the serious damage that a single plastic straw can cause. 

With all the different natural resources available to make sustainable alternatives to plastic straws, residents of Mother Earth can consider a variety of viable alternatives to reduce the use of plastic to help preserve the environment.

plastic trash on beach

How to Recycle Plastic Straws

Here are the solutions we hinted at earlier, and this is the exciting part. There are numerous recycling solutions for those who are inclined to use plastic straws and want to find a way to dispose of them sustainably.

Local waste management collection

Some cities will have a special collection program by local waste management services. This makes recycling straws easy and straightforward — just be sure to look up your local waste management provider’s collection policies to figure out whether you can recycle plastic straws through your regular curbside recycling process.

Industrial waste management in bulk

Businesses, such as those in food services, may be given special disposal locations since they go through a high volume of waste. In these cases, the restaurant or cafe will collect the used plastic straws and work with the waste management company to dispose of them properly.

Bundling polypropylene or polyethylene items

If your city does not have a special recycling program, do not worry. There is an easy repackaging system that is an effective way to recycle your plastic straws. We recommend putting them in a plastic container that is from the same plastic as straws. Make sure the container is type 5 plastic or made out of polypropylene or polyethylene.

A good way to check for this is the symbol that is usually located at the bottom of the container. The symbol looks like a recycling triangle with the number 5 in it for type 5 plastics. If the types of plastics do not match, they may get separated during sorting, making your efforts go to waste. This helps to ensure that the bendy straws do not get caught or slip through the crevices of the sorting machine. Since everything is made from the same material, they can all be recycled together, ensuring that all your straws make it in as well.

This is a great method for recycling centers that use machine sorting; however, some still use manual sorters. Sometimes, if they are taken out of the container, the straws can be tossed out and regarded as waste. Make sure to check what type of recycling process your local center follows. This will help you decide what is the best way to recycle your straws.

Why using non-plastic straws is better

Sometimes, even with the repackaging method, your plastic straws will still end up in the garbage. This is because polypropylene is inexpensive to manufacture. Plastic straws have historically been more popular than straws made from other alternative materials because it is simply a more cost-effective solution. Straws are made from plastic because there is such a high demand for them, and plastic straw manufacturers have achieved such high economies of scale.

Recycling, on the other hand, is still a rather costly option, which is why even if recycled properly, some recycling centers will choose to simply throw plastic straws out because of convenience. Even if you are trying to do your best to reduce waste, there is not much you can do if the recycling center decides to simply throw plastic straws out. This is why we recommend other options to avoid these complications altogether. You can still enjoy drinking beverages with a straw without worrying about the potential impact on the earth.

Alternatives to plastic straws

There are several different alternative eco-friendly straws including paper, metal, bamboo, and even more creative solutions such as pasta and cookie straws.

Paper

Paper straws are probably still the most popular alternatives to plastic straws. They come in fun shapes and sizes and often have colorful patterns on them. Many are also compostable right in your backyard to make the disposal process easier for you. Although paper straws gained prominence as one of the most popular alternatives to plastic straws, they’re known to saturate quickly and fall apart easily, and it’s an issue that does impact how people enjoy their beverages.

Metal

The other popular alternatives to plastic straws are metal straws. It is a sustainable material and can be used many more times. They also are made of a washable and durable material that is perfect for drinks. It is a great alternative to bring around with you so you can refuse that plastic straw, in the event that some restaurants or businesses do not have any alternatives.

Glass

Similarly, glass straws can be used again and again and require only a small upfront cost. These are machine-washable and can be used for both hot and cold drinks. Unlike metal straws, they are better for use with hot drinks because they won’t get as hot. On the downside, of course, glass straws are more liable to break so it’ll be important to have a good protective case for them if you do decide to go for this as your alternative.

LifeMade© compostable alternatives

Finally, there are biodegradable straws made from eco-friendly materials, like LifeMade's high-quality eco-friendly compostable straws. Having a straw that can hold up well in liquid, whether hot or cold, is important and LifeMade’s straws fit the bill. These straws are fully certified Home Compostable and the best part is, when they fully degrade they return nutrients back to the soil.  

Especially for businesses that go through a high quantity of single-use straws, it is incredibly important to try to reduce the amount of waste produced. When businesses and families decide to make the switch to more eco-friendly options, plastic waste would be reduced greatly.

straws on a tray with a plant

FINAL THOUGHTS

Even though it could take some time for consumers to get used to plastic straw alternatives, switching to other material choices could help produce less waste and reduce our impact on the environment. While there is a somewhat effective method to recycling plastic straws, we do recommend alternatives over continuing to use plastic straws. Not only is it less work, but it’s more effective in limiting the use of plastic.


So, although the short answer to the question “Are plastic straws recyclable?” is yes, the complications of recycling polypropylene materials far outweigh the benefits of using them. We recommend switching to biodegradable straws or compostable straws as alternatives to keep our earth happy and healthy.