Straws, like most plastics, are made using fossil fuels and cannot be recycled. However, they are not the biggest problem when it comes to plastic waste that ends up in landfills or the ocean. If you use straws every day, they might be a significant part of your impact. A good way to reduce waste is to find which disposable, single-use items you use the most and try to cut back on them.

Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I'm Megan Hall. Today we're talking about plastic straws.

Megan Hall: You might have noticed that a lot of cafes are replacing plastic straws with paper straws or offering metal or glass straws instead. They're sort of having a moment right now. But not everybody is excited about this idea.

Isabelle Doyle: They don't work. You can't drink liquid through a paper straw.

Megan Hall: That's Isabelle Doyle, a Brown student, and she was not happy when the university replaced plastic straws with paper straws. So here's the question: why are so many people talking about banning straws right now and how much of a difference does skipping the straw actually make?

Megan Hall: I have Lauren Black and Molly Magid in the studio today. They're part of the Possibly team and they looked into the answer.

Megan Hall: Welcome Lauren and Molly.

Molly Magid: Hi Megan.

Lauren Black: Thanks for having us.

Megan Hall: So what did you find out?

Lauren Black: So one problem with plastic straws is that, like most plastics they're made from fossil fuels and they take a long time to break down. So they can stay in landfills or the ocean for hundreds of years. And this issue of straws ending up in the ocean is what's really gotten the anti-straw movement going.

Molly Magid: But the thing is that straws are only a small percentage of the trash. Only about four percent of the plastic in the ocean, and ahead of those are plastic bottles and bottle caps, plastic bags and many other items.

Megan Hall: So if plastic straws don't make up a big percentage of the trash in the ocean, then why is everyone making such a big deal about them?

Lauren Black: So to figure that out we talked to Dave McLoughlin, who's on the task force to tackle plastics created by Gina Raimondo this past summer. And here's what he said.

Dave McLoughlin: I would say two things about straws. The first one is the topic of recycling, right?

Lauren Black: So unlike other disposable plastic items, plastic straws can't be recycled and because of that, if you put them in the recycling by accident, they can actually mess up the whole thing and make it so that the load is too contaminated and everything has to go to the landfill.

Megan Hall: So if you think you're doing the right thing by recycling a straw, you're actually making the problem worse?

Lauren Black: Yes.

Megan Hall: Dave said that there were two problems. What was the other one?

Molly Magid: Well, straws are one of the easiest kinds of plastics to get rid of. Some people with disabilities do need straws but for most people it's totally optional. So if you think about when you're getting an iced coffee you do need that plastic cup to hold the coffee. But, you don't need to drink it with a straw.

Lauren Black: And if you just really love straws, or you're like Isabelle and you hate the paper ones, you can get a reusable one and bring it with you.

Megan Hall: So it sounds like you're saying that plastic straws aren't like the biggest problem for trash in the ocean, but it's not that hard to get rid of them, so why not?

Molly Magid: Yeah, and if you stop using straws that's great. But as we said there are a lot of other kinds of plastic trash out there, so you should look at your grocery bags and forks and random packaging that you use and try to figure out what you can cut down on.

Lauren Black: Yeah. Everyone has something that they could use less of. Even Dave.

Dave McLoughlin: I will share with you that I use too many paper towels a week, it’s just something I do. Maybe I could say it's a clean habit to have, but I got to break it.

Lauren Black: So basically you need to look at your own habits and see what you can use less of and if you use plastic straws every day that actually might be one of your biggest things to cut down on. But if you only use like one straw a month but you never bring your own bags to the grocery store, probably focus on getting a reusable bag first.

Megan Hall: Great. Well thank you, Molly and Lauren for looking into this question.

Megan Hall That's it for today. To ask a question about the way you recycle, use energy or make any other choice that affects the planet, ask on our question page.