Don’t fall for green-washing straw alternatives

As far as my articles go, this is going to be a relatively short one because my point is very simple: food is not an 'eco-friendly' alternative to plastic and never will be.

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I am completely incensed by this ridiculous new trend of plastic straw alternatives made from food! And what's worse, these are being marketed as 'eco-friendly'. In fact, a company producing straws made from rice was recently claimed to "have the advantage of being completely harmless to the environment" by the Food Manufacture - a food-focused publisher who seems to have no idea of the environmental impacts of food production let alone waste...
So let's have a look at how 'harmless' the production of these straws are for the environment shall we? The two most popular food alternative straws right now are rice and pasta but we'll look at rice first.

 

Rice

Thanks to this super helpful diagram from Hokazono & Hayashi (2012) we have a good idea of the inputs to rice farming, but what do each of these mean for the environment?

Rice

Well, first we've got the fertilizer, the compost and the pesticide - these spell disaster for local wildlife and biodiversity as they either outright kill insects which are vital parts of local wildlife chains or more indirectly change the pH of water sources, killing them through eutrophication.
Then we've got the fuel and the machinery, that's an easy one - energy consumption through the burning of fossil fuels. How are we doing on that environmentally harmless product so far? Fairly standard in terms of farming. So let's crank it up and explore rice farming outputs, or at least its biggest one environmentally speaking: Methane.

Research has suggested that flooded rice paddies in particular account for 20% of the methane 'budget' for the total planet (Scheele & Kruger, 2006). You may remember from my previous articles that methane is reported to be over 26 TIMES more potent in global warming than carbon dioxide. In fact, the World Resource Institute reports that rice contributes 1.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, a huge number for a single crop, and a number which is set to increase. And that's just the methane...we've also got Nitrus Oxide, Ammonia, Nitrogen and Phosphorus being emitted to air and water, each of which will have their own impacts. Now on to the production of Pasta...

Pasta

At this point I feel the need to say very clearly - I LOVE PASTA. And rice. I am in no way condemning them, their amazingness or the part they play in a balanced diet. The point I am trying to make here is that these, as with all foods, have impacts on our planet and should be treated and respected with that in mind. These impacts, although in need of reducing which the industry is currently working on, are reasonable if the food grown serves its purpose and nourishes someone and removes their hunger. It is not acceptable is when these impacts are increased in order to make a plastic alternative which, realistically, won't be eaten after use but will be thrown away.

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(How pasta should be used)

Right, back to the point. Pasta has far less research on it because it is inarguably less impactful than many food types (rice, beef, lamb, dairy etc.), however, the thing to bear in mind here is that it still has an impact. Recchia et al (2019) determined that 1kg of pasta production caused 1.7kg of CO2 equivalent and 13.7MJ of fossil fuel consumption (this is the equivalent of charging your smartphone 343 times). But one of the largest impacts for me is its contribution to soil degradation. This means each time we produce a crop of wheat to turn in to pasta we cause a little more harm to the soil, making it harder and harder and eventually potentially impossible for it to grow crops. And we're increasing the amount this happens by demanding food which we will ultimately throw away. Like pasta straws.

Like I said, I'm going to keep this article short so I won't even get into the environmental impacts of the energy used to manufacture these food items into straws or the water consumption of the whole process.

So what's my point?

Food is not an 'eco-friendly' alternative to plastic and never will be.

It's production alone carries environmental impacts which should not be accepted for the creation of another single-use and throwaway product. Food's core purpose in our lives is to nourish our bodies and keep us healthy and alive. By using it to replace plastic we show our planet huge amounts of disrespect. And that's not even starting on the fact we would literally be using food to drink through and then throwing it away whilst 1 in 9 people on this planet live in starvation.

 

 

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