Straws are plastic, right? Yes.
Plastic is recyclable, right? Yes.
So, straws can be recycled, right? No.
With billions of straws being used around the world every day, that’s a lot of plastic that isn’t getting properly recycled, but why not? There are a different reasons why straws end up in landfills or as litter scattered over beaches, nature preserves, roadways, parks, and other areas instead of being cleaned, broken down, and turned into new and different products.
The typical plastic, single-use straw is a type of plastic known as polypropylene, a thermoplastic polymer petroleum byproduct designated by the number 5 within the chasing arrow recycling symbol. It is the second most common type of plastic, and is often used in butter tubs, colored marine ropes and nets, plastic folders, parts of toys, storage boxes, rugs, yogurt cups, bottle caps, toothbrushes, plastic cutlery, food storage containers, and innumerable other uses.
Polypropylene is indeed recyclable, but just because it can be recycled, doesn’t mean it always is. Because this type of plastic is cheap and easy to create, it is often more cost effective for new material to be manufactured rather than to add the extra expense of sorting, cleaning, and re-processing the plastic. Many municipalities do not accept polypropylene for recycling, even if they do accept other plastic types.
Even in areas where polypropylene is included in recycling, straws are often discarded all the same. When materials enter a recycling plant, they must first be sorted, which is often done mechanically through a series of conveyors and shaking grates that eliminate smaller materials. Small items can easily fall into gears and crevices in the equipment, causing blockages and damage. To protect the equipment and keep the process moving smoothly, these smaller plastics – including straws – are often not recycled. Instead, all these small pieces are gathered up and sent to the landfill.
It might be easy to assume that it’s best to just send plastic straws to the recycling center anyway, even if you aren’t sure if your community can or will recycle them. After all, even if they don’t, the straws will make their way to the landfill anyway, right? While yes, they will be disposed of, they will also have contaminated the recycling equipment first. It costs time and money, potentially thousands of dollars, to monitor and repair that equipment. With fewer and fewer municipal recycling programs turning any sort of profit, if costs continue to escalate because of improper recycling, it is more likely that programs will become more restrictive and simply be shut down, eliminating all recycling options with consequences that go far beyond a few plastic straws.
This is one case where it is best not to recycle at all; the best option is just skip the straw, and all the hassle that it can create.