Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Master's Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science in Environmental and Energy Policy (MS)

Administrative Home Department

Department of Social Sciences

Advisor 1

Chelsea Schelly

Committee Member 1

Melissa F. Baird

Committee Member 2

Roman Sidortsov

Committee Member 3

David R. Shonnard


Around 500 million plastic straws per day are being consumed in the U.S. (U.S. National Park Service, 2019), and nearly 7.5 million straws are reported to lie around U.S. shorelines (Borenstein, 2018). The estimated cost of plastic pollution is reported to be $13 billion in economic damage to marine ecosystems each year (Avio et al., 2017). The ongoing action against the use of single-use plastic straws has created a surging demand for sustainable alternatives to plastic straws, with nearly ten types of single-use and reusable drinking straws now on the market. Given that no one study quantifies and compares the environmental impact of these various straw types, this study uses the Cumulative Energy Demand and the IPCC 2013 GWP 100a V1.03 impact assessment methods in the SimaPro8.5 database to conduct a limited life-cycle assessment (LCA) of the standard plastic straw and its most commonly used alternatives: the paper straw, the bioplastic/compostable (PLA) straw, and the (reusable) metal straw. The study also assesses the blue carbon and carbon dioxide sequestration potential of the seaweed-based straw. The use of a (reusable) metal straw was found to have a significantly lower overall environmental impact than that of other straws over one year, provided that the use of hot water is avoided when washing the metal straw and that the standard washing time is cut to half. Over 85 percent of the environmental impacts reported came from the washing of the metal straw, indicating that human behavior is a key driver of environmental impact. For the single-use straw types, the standard plastic straw was found to have less than half of the energy demand and nearly one-third of the global warming potential of that of a paper straw and a bioplastic straw. Thus, these alternative material straws are not empirically reducing the environmental impacts of straw use. Conversely, the CO2 sequestration potential of the seaweed-based straw was estimated to be 0.00165 kg per straw, indicating the straw’s potential to be carbon neutral or even carbon negative, depending on how the straw’s life-cycle is designed when production is scaled-up. Public policy instruments play a key role in reducing the consumption of plastic straws. While a variety of command-and-control, market-based, investment-based, education-based, and voluntary policy instruments exist to reduce the use of plastic straws, the default choice modification policy instrument has been the most successful in reducing the consumption of plastic straws while minimizing impacts to businesses. Data from this study recommends a default choice modification (straw upon request) framework combined with certification and environmental labeling, and investments in waste management infrastructure and R&D as the most effective set of policies to reduce single-use plastic straw consumption in the U.S. The study concludes with proposals for five areas for further research: (1) ecotoxicology of marine plastics integrated into LCA; (2) LCA of other drinking straw types; (3) a comprehensive economic assessment of plastic pollution; (4) the development of a new Sustainability Index inclusive of socio-economic indices, blue carbon and ecotoxicology of marine plastics; and (5) a conjoint choice analysis (including a cost comparison study) to assess consumer willingness-to-pay.