Why We Use Plastic Straws and How to Stop

plastic straws in a drinking glass
plastic drinking straws

Plastic drinking straws are one of those consumer items that individuals and governments are hoping to ban. Some people may find this puzzling or trivial — even though as of 2019, plastic straws in California became illegal for dine-in restaurants. This law is just part of a growing trend to reduce and eliminate single-use plastic items.

The main argument against plastic straws is that far too many of them end up in the oceans, endangering marine life and negatively impacting the food chain. The argument in favor of plastic straws comes primarily from manufacturers and the food service industries (which we might expect), but also from the disability community (which reminds us to carefully consider unintended consequences of sweeping change).

To examine this shift in public awareness and the problem it hopes to address, let’s begin with looking at why we have drinking straws in the first place.

A Simple, Effective Tool

The story begins at least 5,000 years ago with a thin tube of gold, inlaid with lapis lazuli, discovered in an ancient tomb in southern Iraq. The Sumerians brewed and consumed beer, and this simple tool used muscular action of the mouth and ambient atmospheric pressure for drinking beer while avoiding the solid byproducts of fermentation. The bombilla (“little pump” in Spanish), which sometimes included a strainer, served a similar purpose for hundreds of years in and around Argentina, where a beverage brewed from caffeine-rich yerba mate leaves was enormously popular. We came to call this tube a drinking straw when it was most commonly a dried, hollow plant stem. But as American inventor Marvin C. Stone noticed in 1888, a soggy rye grass stalk hadn’t improved the flavor of his mint julep. So he created and patented a thin tube of waxed paper, and the modern drinking straw was born.

colored drinking straws made of plastic

By the 20th century, straws had moved beyond their role as accessories for enjoying alcohol, caffeine, and ice cream sodas; they were marketed as a sanitary alternative to the health hazards of improperly washed cups and glasses. The Flex-Straw, a bendable paper straw, was born in 1937 when inventor Joseph Friedman noticed his daughter struggling with a milkshake, but the first plastic straw had already been patented the previous year by Arthur Philip Gildersleeve, whose Crazy Straw was designed to amuse children as their beverage twisted its way through hard, transparent loops en route to their mouths. In 1950, Milton Dinhofer parlayed this concept into the Sip-N-See, one of the first mass-produced novelty straws.

Indeed, the years after World War II were the golden age of plastics as the manufacturing and marketing sectors sought consumer-friendly uses for a wartime material that had been cheap and easy to produce. Plastic straws made a natural pairing with fast foods, inevitably becoming a just another throwaway byproduct of a disposable culture. All of this brings us to a global problem that becomes more serious every year: What do we do with disposable materials that won’t go away?

plastic straws end up in trash
plastic pollution in environment caused by drinking straws

Are Plastic Straws Recyclable?

So why doesn’t plastic go away? To be accurate, plastic will go away eventually. However, it takes a very long time to biodegrade (bacterial breakdown) or photodegrade (breakdown via sunlight) — anywhere from 50 to 1000 years. Plastic decomposes into increasingly smaller pieces called microplastics, which enter the soil and water, impacting the health of animal and human populations. Strawless Ocean reports that microplastics are already present in commercially available sea salt and 94% of U.S. tap water. According to Plastics Europe, 1.5 million tons of plastic were produced globally in 1950, and by 2015 the volume had jumped to 322 million tons. Eight million tons of discarded plastic end up in the ocean every year. It’s dramatically visible in the gyres where ocean currents meet, creating vast floating garbage patches.

Straws comprise 0.025% of all this oceanic garbage, which may not sound like a lot. Yet ScienceMag.org reported that the world’s beaches were littered with an estimated 8.3 billion plastic straws in 2017, and that U.S. consumers used 500 million plastic straws every day. Numbers like these are at the heart of the movement to ban straws. They highlight the consequences of what for most people has become a convenient habit: beverages that come with single-use disposable drinking straws.

Every conservation effort begins with a change in how resources are being used — or if they need to be used at all. Our reflex of grabbing a plastic straw from the countertop dispenser and poking it into our soda or iced coffee is a remnant of less ecologically aware times. If we can change this one small behavior to make a difference in the garbage lingering in our landfills, polluting our oceans, and harming wildlife, what else can we change with just a little more effort?

Alternatives to Plastic Straws

First Question: Do You Actually Need a Drinking Straw?

In looking at how we use any problematic item, the first thing to ask is whether we need to use it at all. In many cases, drinking through a straw is unnecessary and therefore a habit we can train ourselves to break. In some circumstances, however, there’s a practical need for drinking straws. Hospitals use them for patients unable to sit up while receiving fluids orally. People living with disabilities may find straws necessary when their range of motion is limited. And if we’re drinking liquids in a moving vehicle or tight quarters, or if bringing the cup to our lips is likely to result in a mess, the straw is a welcome utensil. So let’s look at some alternatives to plastic straws.

» Paper Straws

There’s no reason why we can’t return to Marvin C. Stone’s 1888 invention of the paper straw or Joseph Friedman’s 1937 Flex-Straw adaptation. Modern versions of this basic tool are still being manufactured and sold. Here are just a few:

» Bamboo Straws

Paper isn’t the only organic material that can be used to make drinking straws. If you’d like to rely on products that use less energy and water in their manufacturing process, consider these alternatives:

» Seaweed Straws

Another natural alternative to plastic is to use drinking straws made with seaweed:
LOLISTRAWS (made from seaweed) https://www.loliware.com/

» Stainless Steel Straws

All you need is a thin bottlebrush and soapy water, and these straws will last indefinitely.

» Glass Straws

If you’d prefer to see what you’re drinking, consider glass straws.

» Reusable Plastic Straws

Yes, they’re still plastic, but at least you can reuse them again and again…

» Acrylic Straws

If you’re looking for high-end resuable plastic straws, acrylic is a type of plastic that, when used to make drinking straws, is functionally similar to glass or stainless steel. It’s less flexible and more durable than many other plastics, and it can offer a wider color range than glass and steel (although the sets we found don’t come in colors):

» Compostable Plastic Straws

“Are plastic straws recyclable?” we asked. Well, it turns out that some of them can be. The good news about compostable plastic straws is that they’ll biodegrade quickly and without environmental damage. The less-than-good news is that they have to be recycled at commercial composting facilities rather than tossed into landfills, which is an extra step that might not be easy for everyone. Check out these manufacturers:

» Ice Straws

Finally, if you want your drinking straw to disappear quickly, possibly leaving behind the flavor of your choice, why not try the ice straw? (A word of warning: this is highly impractical for drinking hot or warm liquids!)

Every Day Should Be Earth Day: How to Solve the E-Waste Crisis?

Every day should be Earth Day

by James Kao, Founder, and CEO of GreenCitizen.

Every year on April 22, we celebrate Earth Day. This day is recognized as the launch of the U.S. environmental movement in 1970, a groundswell of public concern which quickly led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. April 22 still appears on our calendars as Earth Day, but what does it look like almost 50 years later?
Every day should be Earth Day

A Daily Problem Needs a Daily Solution

Many organizations celebrate Mother Earth on April 22. Everywhere you look, you’ll see events promoting pro-environmental messages. All day long, or maybe for just a few hours, there’s talk of sustainability awareness. There are dire projections and passionate gestures around conserving natural resources and curbing pollution. Organizations gather to collect trash from beaches and waterways, and electronics recyclers waive their drop-off fees for the day. These are all great gestures for bringing some awareness to the issue. But the only problem is that by April 23, the day after Earth Day, people are already forgetting about their commitment to making the planet clean and green, focusing instead on business as usual, and counting down the days to May Day or Mother’s Day or whatever their next celebration will be.

Is this annual one-day event going to help solve the problems of global electronics recycling and the e-waste crisis? I can answer that in one word: “NO!”

While a one-day focus on sustainability offers some families and businesses the chance to get rid of the unwanted electronics they’ve been accumulating all year, it does nothing to provide the ongoing motivation or convenience that’s necessary to really address the world’s growing e-waste crisis. Computers and other electronics are a given in our daily lives, both in business and at home. New and improved devices are flooding the market, and the ones we’ve been using malfunction or break far too easily after just a few years. Why repair them when it’s cheaper to replace them with something just as good or better? Yet those old and broken electronics keep piling up. We need places where we can recycle them every day, not just on April 22.

Electronics Recycling Made Easy

GreenCitizen was founded with that need in mind. We’ve been in business since 2005. Over the past 14 years, our company has helped over 275,000 individuals and over 25,000 businesses to divert over 28 million pounds of e-waste by offering year-round recycling and education at its EcoCenter in Burlingame, California.

GreenCitizen’s EcoCenter offers consumers an unprecedented level of convenience by allowing them to recycle almost all electronics that plug into the wall or run on batteries. It is open 10 AM to 6 PM from Monday through Saturday. No appointment is necessary. GreenCitizen provides equal convenience for San Francisco Bay Area businesses to recycle their electronics. Business customers can simply submit a request on the greencitizen.com website, providing a list of their items and their windows of availability on weekdays. They can schedule a pickup from anywhere within 40 miles of the EcoCenter. And on the chosen day, GreenCitizen’s environmentally passionate staff will arrive on location to collect the business’ e-waste.

Think of us as a concierge service, taking just a few minutes of your time to handle a critical task that you probably wouldn’t do otherwise. Compare this level of convenience to the annual chore of hauling your own e-waste to a temporary location within a small window of time on Earth Day. GreenCitizen believes businesses all over the world need this kind of door-to-door service, just as consumers all over the world need an EcoCenter in their town.

Convenient recycling needs to be a year-round service. It must become an option for consumers and businesses to recycle whenever they have an unwanted electronic device that needs to go away. As a society, we need to change Earth Day recycling drives from a special event to an everyday reflex.

Energy Saving Tips for Your Computer

Woman learning about computer energy saving tips

Woman learning about computer energy saving tips

Ever wonder how to save energy when using your computer? If you see that low battery notification all too quickly, then it’s time to learn more about your computer power consumption. Luckily, there are plenty of things you can do to improve the life of your device. Check out our handy list of energy saving tips that not only save your wallet, but also the environment!

How to Make Your PC Use Less Power

Set your computer to hibernate

When your computer is not in use, set it to hibernate mode. This saves more energy than stand by mode, screensavers, or shutting down your computer completely. Standby mode shuts down peripherals such as the monitor and hard drive, but still uses a small amount of energy. This is the best option if you only plan to step away from your computer for a few minutes. However, setting your computer to hibernate when not in use shuts down the entire computer and stores the information on your hard drive. Computer consultants agree this is a better option because your work will still be saved. Furthermore, when you turn on your computer again, it requires less energy to start up from hibernation than when it is completely shut down.
(HINT: Every modern operating system has its own settings for conserving power. When in doubt, take your computer to a PC consultant or take advantage of online PC repair services to determine the optimal energy use for your computer.)

Unplug computer peripherals when not in use

Even when electronics are turned off, a continuous current of energy often referred to as “vampire energy” or “phantom energy” continues to stream into electronics. Printers for example, use about 103 watts of energy each day, even when turned off! Unplugging your electronics when not in use will stop the energy flow and save power. Try using a power strip with an on and off switch to reduce the flow of energy and protect your electronics. Save electricity by switching the power strip off when not in use.

Use an online PC repair service

Is your computer slow or not functioning properly? Don’t get rid of it. Instead, take your computer to a computer consultant or find an online PC repair service and have them run a virus or spyware removal program, upgrade your memory, install a new operating system or replace broken hardware. Generally, any functional computer with a Pentium 4 processor that can run Windows XP can be upgraded. This reduces electronic waste and is cheaper than buying a whole new system. Taking advantage of virus and spyware removal services that can improve your computer’s energy consumption and functioning. It’ll run like new!

By making a few changes, you can greatly reduce your computer power consumption. Instead of buying brand new, follow our energy saving tips to refresh your computer while limiting electricity use and needless waste.

We are dedicated to working with you towards making a greener future. For more questions about computer energy saving tips or electronic recycling, call us (650) 493-8700 today!

Data and Hard Drive Destruction Services: How to Destroy a Hard Drive

pile of old monitors

According to research published in the International Journal of Environmental Technology and Management, “computer recycling capacity will need to be able to cope with more than a billion PCs by 2020” and as “access to technology increases in the developing world, the problem of recycling and disposal of desktop and notebook computers rises, too.” In addition, their research suggests that there will be “126 million desktop computers and 900 million notebook computers that will be past their life expectancy by the year 2025.”

pile of old monitors

That’s a whole lot of computers filled with personal data. That’s why a top Google search is ’how to destroy my old hard drive.’ You’ll probably find photos and YouTube videos of people chopping at their old computers with an ax. We promise this is the not the best way. While the images depicted may be funny, they don’t address the consequences of improper IT asset disposition or sustainability. They don’t say what happens if a drive you forgot to wipe is recovered and you’re reported to the EPA.

THE BIG TIP for Hard Drive Destruction and Disposal?  … Leave It to the Experts

Technology waste is a complex issue and presents a host of special problems. That is why the best solution is to engage an expert, someone who is experienced in electronic recycling and IT asset disposition. Your old hard drives, whether they’re in your laptops, desktops, smartphones, or tablets, if recycled the the right way, will protect the environment, your business, and keep you compliant with government laws.


GreenCitizen provides a hard drive destruction service at our Burlingame, California EcoCenter. Simply bring in or mail your old hard drives to us. Businesses can request a pickup or have hard drive destruction performed on-site.

How GreenCitizen destroys your hard drives the right way:

  1. Remove the hard drive from your laptop/computer
  2. Track the hard drive to its serial number
  3. Track the hard drive to its electronic device
  4. Help you choose whether to wipe the hard drive clean or destroy it. Hard drives of older desktops and laptops are immediately removed and destroyed no matter what.
  5. Then recycle the electronic device

You’ll get a Certification of Destruction listing each hard drive with its serial and model number.

Hard Drive Destruction

We also offer Hard Drive Disk Wipe and Data Clearing

If you choose to get your hard drives, cell phones, and PDAs wiped clear, we first track each item down to its serial and model number, then remove the hard drive. The hard drive will be erased using the Department of Defense 5220.22-M Data Sanitization process. At the end, you’ll get a certificate that lists the specs of each item/hard drive and the peace of mind that comes with knowing your data is safe.

The GreenCitizen Mission- Make Every Day Earth Day

GreenCitizen is a leader in business and consumer electronic recycling in the San Francisco Bay Area. For over 15 years, we have provided convenient recycling pickup, drop-off, and accountability tracking to SF consumers and businesses.

We rely on system-wide innovation, and consumer education with the result of minimizing negative impact to our environment.  With your help we hope to spread our sustainable model to cities everywhere. Recycling your computers and electronics is a huge challenge, but imperative for saving our planet. Our dedication is to partner with YOU to adopt environmentally sound practices and drive impactful environmental change. How can GreenCitizen help you and your business?

For any questions about hard drive destruction, please call us at (650) 493-8700.

Laptop Recycling: How to Recycle Your Laptop?

Person typing on new laptop and needs laptop recycling

You’ve had your clunky laptop for many years and now it’s time for an upgrade. Once you finally pick out the perfect one, you’ll find yourself with two laptops taking up space. What do you do with the old one? That’s where laptop recycling comes in!

Person typing on new laptop and needs laptop recycling

Laptops are becoming more and more important in our everyday lives. From business to personal, we need them for a variety of tasks. Plus, every 3-5 years, a new generation of laptops emerges that is lighter, more powerful, and more user-friendly. It’s hard to pass up.

That’s why laptop recycling plays a big part in today’s world. According to the EPA, “recycling 1 million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by more than 3,500 U.S. homes in a year.” Most consumers also don’t know that electronics contain recyclable components for newer products. Or that they contain toxic materials that will harm the environment if left to sit in a landfill!

But before we get into what to do with your old laptop, you need to know how to clear it of any sensitive information. Some of the things we do online involve confidential data such us our social security number, driver license, bank account, and birthdate. We also log in to many online services with our username and password. That means, you need to make sure all confidential data moves to your new laptop before recycling.

How to Wipe a Laptop Before Recycling

  • Backup
    Migrate all your data to your new laptop using cloud services and an external hard drive (like a USB flash drive).
  • De-Authorize
    Products like iTunes and Adobe limit the number of devices that can access them. You need to deauthorize your old device on these accounts before recycling. Otherwise, you might not be able to access them on your new laptop!
  • Clean and Reset
    Wipe the old hard drive completely with software that conforms to the DOD standard. Both Apple and Windows have reset and restore instructions to help.

After you’ve wiped your laptop clean, you’re ready to recycle!

Where to Recycle Laptop Computers

Take your laptops to a responsible recycling company that focuses on reuse or proper dismantling. You can check out TIA’s E-cycling Central website to find an electronic recycling center near you.

For those in the San Francisco Bay area, you’re in luck. GreenCitizen offers free laptop recycling and will make sure your old laptop computers are safely recycled or reused. We offer convenient drop off and business pickup options so you can stay green!

For more information about how to recycle your laptop in San Francisco, feel free to call us at (650) 493-8700 or message us on our online chat today!