Straws have become an icon in the fight against non-reusable plastics. Plastic straws make up about 7% of plastic product waste found in the U.S., and they’ve been a recent topic for state legislatures including Washington and California. Both businesses and cities are urging consumers to ditch plastic straws. Some food service companies have banned plastic straws in their cafes nationwide. Making small changes in our daily lives is the best way for us to effect long-lasting change. But it’s also important that while we’re making these decisions in our communities, we consider what the benefits of drinking through a straw are. And not just what the benefits are for ourselves. We must consider the implications of this movement from everyone’s perspective, including older adults or individuals with movement disorders.
In 2018, Seattle became the largest U.S. city to ban plastic straws. In 2019, California enacted a similar policy. As the straw-banning trend spreads, some unintended consequences are coming to light. Individuals with movement disorders, older adults, and the disabled are feeling left out of the equation, as plastic straws have been a life-changing tool since their advent in the 1950s.
The Benefits of Drinking Through a Straw
Bloomberg news gives perspective on plastic straws and pollution:
- 8.3 billion: The number of plastic straws scattered across the world.
- .03%: The percent these straws contribute to polluting the ocean in a single year.
For the general public, ditching straws when you’re out to dinner is an easy way to remove unnecessary, single-use plastics from day-to-day life. But we can see here that banning single-use plastic straws city-wide for good isn’t going to make a major impact on the pollution epidemic. It is going to make life harder for already disenfranchised communities.
Older Adults Can Benefit from Straws
One group of people who rely on straws are older adults. Even healthy older adults are at risk for not feeling thirst as keenly as their younger counterparts. Additionally, all bodies lose water as we age, which contributes to dehydration in older adults.
- One study proved that healthy older adults can consume more water without spilling from a bendable plastic straw than they were able to when drinking directly from a cup.
- This has implications for hydration as well as their quality of life. Consistent spilling can be frustrating and embarrassing, and straws help curb this.
- Parkinson’s disease impacts more than 10 million people worldwide with 96 percent of individuals diagnosed after age 50.
- Symptoms include muscle spasms, facial twitches, involuntary biting, and other unintentional movements that make holding or drinking from a cup difficult, if not impossible.
- A definite link has been proven between dementia patients and dehydration. Proper hydration for these individuals can be a daily struggle. Older adults with dementia have difficulty using utensils and staying focused. One-way straws are helpful as they let fluid be sucked up without it then falling back down the straw if suction is weak. This can help dementia patients maintain hydration levels.
- Some medications, like those that can stain tooth enamel, must also be taken via a straw.
Those with Mobility Impairments Can Benefit from Straws
The Center for Disability Rights states that mobility and strength issues can prevent an individual from being able to lift a cup up high enough to drink out of. For others, mobility impairment means they “cannot safely hold a drink steady without spilling it.” Bendable plastic straws give these individuals the power to nourish themselves and keep their clothes clean from spills.
Yes, paper straws, rubber straws, and reusable straws are on the market. But, each has drawbacks that plastic straws do not. Paper straws fall apart and disintegrate quickly, and rubber and other reusable straws can be very difficult to keep sanitary. Not to mention, what is one to do when you leave your reusable straw at home?
If restaurants and venues no longer offer single-use plastic straws, navigating a world built for able-bodied people is that much more difficult. Instead of pushing to ban straws, let’s push for researchers to find a better alternative for straws that work better than their single-use plastic relative.
Oral Health Benefits of Drinking Through a Straw
If you’re using straws simply because you like them, we encourage you to look into some of the more popular reusable straw options. With a reusable straw, you’re cutting down on your single-plastic use while still experiencing the oral health benefits of drinking through a straw!
The key to having a healthy smile is drinking beverages that aren’t water in moderation. But for some of us, that’s a hard battle to win. While we work to cut down on soda and juice, straws can help curb how much acid or sugar encounters your teeth.
The enamel on our teeth has pores. That means that our favorite dark drinks like fruit juice, soda, and cocktails can cause staining! Drinking through a straw allows the beverage to make less contact with teeth, decreasing the chances of discoloration.
The bacteria in your mouth use sugar to cause tooth decay, which can lead to cavities! About 26 percent of adults age 20 to 64 have untreated tooth decay. Using a straw can decrease how often those sugars touch the teeth, potentially curbing the risk of decay and cavities.
Some beverages are so acidic that our saliva isn’t able to neutralize the impact they have on our teeth. Calcium, fluoride, and phosphate (all found in our saliva) help fight this cavity-causing bacteria. But, prolonged periods of sipping on something acidic doesn’t allow our saliva to replenish. To avoid this, wash the mouth out with water and decrease the risk of cavities.
- To help protect your teeth, place the tip of the straw behind your teeth and tongue. This directs the liquid to the back of your mouth, preventing contact with enamel.
- Drink a glass of water after you finish a sugary or acidic beverage to rinse teeth and promote salivation.
- After rinsing, wait at least 30 minutes before you brush. Brushing your teeth when acidic substances are on top can scrub the enamel right off your teeth!
Talk to your dentist today about other ways to protect your teeth. Find a dentist in your area.
Learn more about how sugar affects oral health: