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In pursuit of environmentally friendly straws: a comparative life cycle assessment of five straw material options in South Africa

Abstract

Purpose

The increasing global concern surrounding plastic pollution has resulted in a spotlight being placed on major contributors. Straws have been identified as a top contributor in this regard leading to a global outcry against plastic straws. This has resulted in the increasing popularity of plastic straw material alternatives. This study compares the environmental impacts associated with five straw material options available in South Africa.

Methods

The straw materials compared include disposable options (polypropylene, paper and polylactide) and reusable straws (glass and steel). Plastic straws were the only option which are locally produced from local materials, whereas glass and steel straws are manufactured from imported materials and paper and polylactide straws are imported. The functional unit was based on an annual straw consumption per capita, which equates to 36 disposable straws and 1 reusable straw. The impact assessment was conducted using the Recipe Midpoint (H) method, which took into consideration 18 impact categories. The potential marine pollution impacts were explored based on the leakage propensity of the material option coupled with its degradability.

Results and discussion

The paper straw was found to have lower climate change emissions than the plastic one, which was mainly caused by the performance of the material. In South Africa, coal is used as a primary feedstock for polypropylene production making it more carbon-intensive in comparison with polypropylene produced in Europe and the USA which is primarily from crude oil and/or natural gas feedstocks. Glass and steel straws would require 23–39 and 37–63 uses respectively to break even with climate change emissions associated with disposable options. Overall, material production was the major contributor to straw emissions. The relative contribution of transportation, including import, was more dependent on the transportation mode compared with distance. For reusable straws, the washing water temperature was found to notably influence emissions. At end-of-life, reusable straws were considered unlikely to enter the marine environments. Disposable straws were found to have a leakage rate of 38%, with paper being the only marine degradable material.

Conclusions

Overall, paper straws had the least impacts in the majority of impact categories in comparison with other disposable options and glass was more favourable to steel. In terms of marine pollution, reusable straws were deemed to pose the least risk due to their unlikelihood to be polluted. Paper was associated with the least potential impacts of the disposal options, due to its degradability.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the local straw distributors and manufacturers who provided information regarding the different straw life cycle stages.

Funding

This work is based on the research supported in part by the National Research Foundation of South Africa (Grant Number: 116431).

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Correspondence to Takunda Y. Chitaka.

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Chitaka, T.Y., Russo, V. & von Blottnitz, H. In pursuit of environmentally friendly straws: a comparative life cycle assessment of five straw material options in South Africa. Int J Life Cycle Assess 25, 1818–1832 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-020-01786-w

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Keywords

  • Plastic pollution
  • Life cycle assessment
  • Plastic alternatives
  • Reusable straws
  • Single-use straws
  • Plastic straws