I teach a STEM enrichment class for young kids where we do a ton of hands-on craft and building projects. I have joked at times that I have 101 different project ideas that use plastic straws (I’ll link to some below).
Unfortunately, plastic straws are REALLY bad for the environment! They can’t be recycled, they take 200 years to decompose (break down into smaller pieces) but they never biodegrade, and they make up 3% of the trash in our oceans, harming wildlife. (Learn more about the environmental impact of plastic straws.) This is why some cities are banning plastic straws. (I want to acknowledge that while I think this is a very good thing for environmental reasons, it can have an accessibility impact on some people with disabilities.)
My new goal is to reduce straw use both for my drinks and in my classes.
I would love to tell you I’ve gone straw-free for my drinks. But I really strongly prefer to drink my soda through a straw. So, I got these stainless steel straws with these silicon tips and mostly use those. If you think this seems like a burden, I don’t find it to be one. I carry some in my bag and some in my car, and after I use them, bring them inside, take a few seconds to hand-wash them with the brush that came with them and return them to my bag. I’ve had them for a year, and they’re in great shape and there haven’t been any issues with mold or guck, even when I don’t get around to washing them for a few days. I also use them as coffee stirrers, which saves the planet from me using a whole lot of wood stirrers and plastic stirrers!
But still, plastic straws sometimes come to me. Like I go through a drive-through and they’ve put them in the bag and I don’t notice till I pull away. I use my steel straw and take the plastic ones to class to use.
Or sometimes I forget my straw. Whenever I end up using a plastic straw, I take it home, and wash it in the dishwasher (no, they don’t melt – even when they’re on the bottom rack in the silverware basket, they always come through just fine… that’s why these puppies never bio-degrade! Even the Taco Time compostable straws come through the dishwasher just fine.) Then I take the straw to class to add to the craft supplies.
But I’ve reduced my straw supply enough that I won’t have enough straws to use for class projects, so I’m now going to challenge my students to wash their straws and re-use them. Or if they don’t want to re-use them, then bring them in to class to re-use.
Because I do have some cool projects that work best with plastic straws, and I’d much rather give those single-use straws at least a brief second life before they hit the landfill.
We use straws to attach our wheels and axles to our car projects. We run strings through them that act as “tendons” for our cardboard fingers. We blow through bendy straws for our pompom puffers and our ballast submarines. We use straws in our lung models. And we’ve used them to blow air through to test “what can the wind move.” In all those cases, I can’t think of a good substitute for the straw – it needs to be a hollow tube. But I’m hoping to move toward mostly re-used straws for these.
For all these projects, Paper Straws may also be an option. The pricing is similar to plastic straws.
We have used plastic straws for our thaumatropes and our sundials. I could substitute dowels or pencils in both those projects, though I’ll have to think about budget differences. We’ve used straws in our weather vanes and anemometers – we might be able to substitute lightweight wooden skewers. And we use straws in our craft stick harmonicas – we could possibly substitute something else, as it’s just there as a thin spacer to allow the rubber band to vibrate.
If you are a preschool or early elementary teacher, have you tried using used-but-clean straws in your projects? Or have you carefully evaluated your craft projects that use plastic straws and other non-biodegradable items to see whether there’s a more environmentally friendly alternative?