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Plastic pollution on Singapore beach (Image by Loretta Sze/Shutterstock)

The plastic problem is a complex issue that requires more than just getting rid of straws

Recently, over 80 KFC outlets have stopped providing straws to all their customers and plastic drink lids to dine-in customers in a move that they say will save 17.9 tonnes of plastic a year. So what do customers do when they need a straw for their takeaway drink? They find it elsewhere.

A Kopitiam outlet at Greenridge shopping centre in Jelapang had to put up a sign requesting that their customers stop taking the straw from the Kopitiam for their KFC purchases. “We are not KFC’s straw supplier”, the sign said.

This post has garnered a lot of attention on Facebook and opinions are clearly divided on this issue. Some users were understanding of the Kopitiam’s notice while others were strangely upset. There were people who implied that the Kopitiam is being stingy over such a small matter while other’s noted that reducing plastic pollution will only work if the community is united on this front and that the Kopitiam outlet should stop using straws as well.

Now, I think the management of the Kopitiam were just protecting themselves by putting up this notice. After all, as they said in their sign, ‘they are not KFC’s straw suppliers’. Customers who nonchalantly take straws from the Kopitiam for a drink bought at another store are essentially stealing and though straws are relatively inexpensive, costs like this can build up over time.

However, the broader picture that needs to be addressed here is the ‘no straw policy’ that KFC and many other fast food establishments have started to adopt. Is it really effective?

Ever since that video of the poor sea turtle with a straw up its nose started circulating around the internet, millions of people have taken up arms against plastic pollution, focusing specifically on straws. In Singapore, a survey conducted on a small sample of people estimated that there around 2.2 million straws were used in Singapore per day. That’s about 800 million straws a year. That sounds awful.

However, scientists in Australia have estimated that the 8.3 billion plastic straws scattered around global coastlines only make up about 0.03% of the 8 million metric tonnes of plastic that is estimated to enter the oceans in one year. So in the grand scheme of things, straws are not the main contributor to dying sea turtles. The biggest killer of sea life is actually fishing gear including abandoned fishing nets. That's a problem that can only be solved with the cooperation of the fishing industry worldwide.

But of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing everything we can on an individual level to reduce plastic pollution. Which brings us back to straws. In recent years, metal, glass and bamboo straws have become popular alternatives for people to carry around and use in place of your standard plastic straws. After it’s been reused often enough, you could argue that the manufacturing cost on the environment balances itself out.

However, there’s a fear that metal straws (usually made with stainless steel) can result in bacteria growth if the tube is not cleaned properly. Glass straws are fragile and therefore not particularly safe for children while bamboo straws can have a negative impact if not harvested sustainably. Pandas need to eat after all. So what’s left? Paper straws. There seems to be an online consensus that paper straws are the best alternative to plastic because they decompose rather quickly once disposed.

Now, coming back to the food and beverage industry. Fast food joints pledging to stop using plastic straws is a commendable first step. But it’s also an inconvenient one when done without an alternative in place. Customers still want straws – for children, people with sensitive teeth, clumsy adults or just anyone – and the F&B industry is all about providing a service.

So instead of simply getting rid of straws, they should be investing in paper straws as alternatives. These are by far a better alternative for the environment than plastic. And yes, paper straws are expensive but it’s not like KFC can’t afford to make that investment. They can just have paper straws as an option if customers ask and charge a small fee for it to encourage their customers to think about adopting a more eco-friendly lifestyle. It takes a village, after all.

And yes, in the grand scheme of things, plastic straws make up only 0.03% of the plastic problem. But it’s the behaviour that matters in the end. We need a paradigm shift in how we live as a global community and what we put out into the world. I say one small step in the form of rethinking our straw habits is a move in the right direction. It’s planting a small seed in millions of minds that will hopefully grow beyond just plastic straws.