Living the plastic life: Experts say straw usage in Singapore 'excessive'
While there are no official figures, one eatery finished 10,000 plastic straws in two months before switching to metal alternatives for dine-in customers.
SINGAPORE: A lunchtime visit to any hawker centre makes it apparent - people here love plastic straws. On tables are straws in cups with lids, poked into plastic film-sealed cups, and even in mineral water bottles.
In fact, if you are having a cold drink in a coffee shop, cafe or food court while reading this, you are probably sipping it through a straw. It is hard to imagine Singapore without single-use straws, since they are so entrenched in the city's dining scene, but that is what some authorities around the world are moving towards.
Internationally, anti-plastic straw sentiment has been picking up, with Scotland planning to ban them by end-2019, and lawmakers in some American states passing orders that limit or prohibit restaurants from using them.
Nearer to Singapore, Taiwan, which can be considered the world's bubble tea capital, will be banning single-use plastics, including straws, by 2030.
Environmental experts said that straws are a good starting point in encouraging the reduction of plastic use, but some businesses who spoke to Channel NewsAsia felt otherwise.
STRAWS USED FOR STIRRING, TO PREVENT SPILLAGE: BUSINESS OWNERS
In fact, Mr Wiltian Ang, owner of The Matcha Project, believes that people are more likely to get comfortable cutting back on other plastics first.
“Once consumers are fully comfortable with bringing their own cups and bags, they might just be keen to bring their own straws or not using straws at all,” he said.
To encourage them, he gives a S$0.50 discount to those who bring their own reusable cups. He said that it would be difficult to stop providing straws freely at his shop, given that his cafe only sells takeaway drinks.
When people drink on the go, a straw is best to avoid spillage, he said. He added that the straw doubles up as a stirrer.
“Imagine buying an iced takeaway beverage without a straw. With the ice melting, the drink will be diluted and sediment will settle,” he said.
Mr Ang, who sold 700 iced drinks in January, adding that the low price of straws also decreases the incentive to minimise their use.
Barista Chris Chew echoed Mr Ang’s sentiments. She said that because The Hangar Coffee Express, where she works, does not provide a stirrer, those who add sugar syrup to their drinks use the straw as one.
“If we don’t provide it, and let people request for it, I wouldn’t have time because I’m here alone, I wouldn’t be able to entertain the requests,” she said.
She said that there are customers - about one in every 100 - who bring their own metal straws.
Another drinks seller, who did not want to be named, said that he seals his drinks with plastic film, and that means customers would definitely need a straw to pierce through it. He added that those who get drinks to takeaway prefer their cups sealed, to prevent spillage.
TAKING STRAWS “UNTHINKINGLY”
Patrons Channel NewsAsia spoke to said that they take straws “unthinkingly” and that it was convenient to use straws.
Student Manushri Rajesvaran, 17, said: “I use the straws because they give them. If they didn’t, I probably wouldn’t.” She added however that having a lid, which has a hole for a straw is also a good thing for her because she would spill the drink otherwise.
Another patron, who wanted to be known as Ms Foo, felt the same way.
“I don’t think when the stall owner gives it to me, but if he doesn’t, I wouldn’t fight for it,” said the 35-year-old public servant.
Another customer, Ms Lucy Wynn, 42, who works in the corporate finance industry, said that she usually uses straws to keep her lipstick intact and to avoid getting a “milk moustache” when she has iced coffee.
She added that she feels safer using a straw with canned drinks, as she fears the cans would get dirty at some point during the transportation process. The straw users said they knew the environmental harm the small cylindrical plastics could do.
STRAWS DAMAGING TO ANIMALS AND ENVIRONMENT: EXPERTS
Environmental experts Channel NewsAsia spoke to said that straws are damaging both to animals that end up eating them, to people, and to the environment.
They are often eaten by seabirds and sea turtles, causing starvation and death. In the ocean, plastic straws break down gradually into microplastics, which are eaten by fish and shellfish, said head of “eateries outreach” at non-profit group Plastic-Lite Singapore, Mr Pek Shibao.
“When these fish are caught and eaten by humans, these microplastics wind up entering our bodies as well, which may cause serious negative health effects,” he said.
He added that straws are often not disposed of properly in Singapore.
“As they are small and light, they often get blown into our drains and onto our beaches or into the sea,” he said. Even when they are properly disposed of and incinerated, the burning of plastic generates toxic gases and creates poisonous ash which must be sent to the landfill, he added.
Singapore has only one landfill, which at current rates will be full by 2030, he said.
President of Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore) Tay Kae Fong said that the key problem is pollution from the sheer volume of single-use plastic straw waste generated.
“People may think it's a small straw, but these seemingly harmless straws add up very very quickly,” he said. Plastic straws are made from petroleum and the petrol industry is inherently damaging to the environment.
The institute aims to empower people to make a difference for all living things.
EDUCATION NEEDED TO CHANGE MINDSETS
Mr Pek, who defined straw usage in Singapore as “excessive”, said that one of Plastic-Lite’s successful initiatives is getting schools to sign up to stop using plastic straws every Tuesday.
“We visit schools to conduct talks about the impact of disposable plastics, so that students become more environmentally aware from a young age,” he said.
At roadshows, the organisation also gets people to calculate how much plastic waste they generate every year using its plastic footprint calculator.
Mr Tay said that it has “become clear” that the convenience that these straws bring is not worth the harm they do to animals, people, and the environment. To patrons’ worries about hygiene drinking from the mouth of a cup or can, he said it is not established that these are dirty or not washed properly.
“I don't think it's a situation that justifies a switch to single-use plastics as the solution. Isn't it better for us to look into better washing of reusable cups instead?” he asked.
The experts said that businesses could spur change by not offering straws as a default with drinks. One such business that is doing so is Common Man Coffee Roasters.
CAFE COMPANY SAVES BY MAKING SWITCH
Since the beginning of this year, the company, which has two outlets, has been providing stainless steel straws.
“This was a move we made to try and reduce our environmental footprint, and was an easy yet effective swap for us to make,” said its brand manager Sarah Rouse.
Prior to the switch the firm, which just opened its second outlet last year, would go through a box of 10,000 plastic straws every two months. Now, the same box lasts more than six months, she said.
All guests who dine in are provided with a metal straw, while takeaway drinks come with plastic ones upon request. Ms Rouse estimated that about half of to-go drinkers take a plastic straw.
“I think it does take some adjusting to, drinking your iced beverage without one,” she said.
Common Man is doing its part by replacing paper napkins with a more sustainable bamboo alternative to reduce paper waste, and encouraging cutting down of use of plastic, with a discount for people who bring reusable takeaway cups, she said.
“The hospitality industry can help in spearheading this as we are positioned well to educate the market and advocate for better choices, a positive move for an industry previously linked to excessive wastage and throw-away consumption,” she added.