Does cold brew coffee really need straws?

Amelia Cooper
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July 4, 2022

As the specialty coffee industry continues to balance customer experience with sustainability, many businesses have abandoned single-use items, such as plastic takeaway cups and straws.

The majority have replaced these with eco-friendly alternatives, including sustainable coffee packaging and recyclable takeaway cups. That said, many coffee shops still provide single-use straws with their cold brew coffee offerings. 

While many corporations around the world have implemented bans on plastics straws, it has only made a minor difference in waste production. Single-use straws make up around 2,000 tonnes of the 9 million tonnes of plastic waste that pollutes the oceans each year.

Roasters and coffee shops across the board want to maintain the high quality of their products while keeping customers happy. Simultaneously, they must cut down on waste and reduce the carbon footprint of their business. 

This juggling act often requires roasters and coffee shops to re-evaluate the merit versus the impact of every element of their operation. This includes whether single-use plastic straws need to be served with certain coffee offerings, such as cold brew coffee.

Find out whether cold brew coffee straws are necessary – or if there are eco-friendly alternatives baristas and coffee shops can offer instead.

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Male Caucasian roaster holding out cold brew coffee with straw in clear plastic cup.

Why is cold brew coffee typically served with a straw?

When ordering a cold brew coffee, many consumers may expect to receive a clear takeout cup filled with a strong, creamy beverage and served with a straw. 

Thanks to social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, cold brew coffee has exploded in popularity. Notably, from 2015 to 2020, the cold brew market experienced a 40% increase, and the trend is yet to reach its peak. 

Beyond the drink’s aesthetic appeal and ability to draw in trendy “Instagrammer” consumers, there is a practical purpose for the straw. 

A straw can provide a better drinking experience for cold beverages, as they reduce the risk of brain freeze and protect sensitive teeth from discomfort – both of which are common reactions to ice-cold drinks such as cold brew coffee. 

Additionally, straws help prevent coffee staining teeth. This is particularly important for those who wear braces, as coffee can alter the colour of the brace itself. 

Despite many government bans on single-use straws, their popularity grew during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is because they helped coffee shops and restaurants improve hygiene standards. 

By drinking through a straw, consumers did not have to sip directly from the cup, which was likely to have been handled by staff throughout the day. 

Straws are also popular among many specialty coffee enthusiasts, as they can help consumers taste every element of a beverage. 

For instance, a straw can help consumers experience the full flavour profile, mouthfeel, and aromas of the coffee sip by sip. When sipping directly from a takeaway coffee cup lid, consumers may often get a mouthful of foam with very little coffee.

image of cold brew coffee straws in clear takeaway cup next to camera on table.

The environmental effect of single-use cold brew coffee straws

For years, single-use plastics have been at the top of the global sustainability agenda.

Plastic carrier bags, takeaway cups, and cutlery have been heavily critiqued. They have either been taxed or rapidly removed from consumer access, and single-use straws are no exception. 

While some may argue that straws are only tiny bits of plastic, in America alone, 50 million straws are used every day. Furthermore, a 2019 report estimates around 8.3 billion plastic straws currently pollute beaches around the world. 

Notably, this only represents around 1% of the plastic waste in the world’s oceans. However, plastic straws are still one of the top 10 contributors to the world’s marine waste

Straws can take up to 200 years to degrade completely, and during that process, they often break down into microplastics. 

Microplastics refer to any type of plastic that is less than 5mm (0.20in) in length and are created as plastic gradually breaks down into smaller pieces. Despite their minute size, microplastics pose a major threat.

When microplastics enter the ocean, they can float along the currents for years. As a result, they are often ingested by marine animals, filling their bodies with toxins and eventually killing them by restricting their growth or ability to breathe. 

Notably, recent research reveals 1 in every 3 fish caught for human consumption contains some form of plastic. Additionally, the report states by 2050, plastic waste in the ocean will outweigh fish

Furthermore, researchers have hypothesised human exposure to microplastics could lead to oxidative stress, DNA damage, and inflammation

Shockingly, in 2020, microplastic particles were found in the placentas of unborn babies. While the direct impact of microplastics in the body is currently unknown, scientists believe they could carry chemicals that may cause long-term damage. 

Image of African American consumer adding ice to cold brew coffee with bamboo straw.

Alternatives to single-use plastics straws

Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a sharp increase in the number of takeaway orders

While this was a necessity at the time, increased takeaway orders tripled the global use of single-use plastics. Now the pandemic is coming to an end, there is an argument that straws have served their purpose. 

While many sustainability initiatives have pushed the removal of single-use plastic straws, they can only be successful if they provide viable, long-term solutions. An effective solution would be to offer sustainable alternatives to products that consumers enjoy using.

It is clear that straws are enjoyed by many consumers, and may make cold brew coffees more enjoyable to drink. If baristas and coffee shops simply stop offering them, they may risk losing a percentage of their customer base.

However, there are several highly viable alternatives to plastic straws that will allow consumers to continue enjoying the same experience with cold brew.

The most common alternative is paper straws. However, many consumers may have issues with their performance, as they can quickly become soft and fall apart.

Notably, the evolution of reusable straws has led to a wide variety of innovative sustainable materials, which perform just as well as plastic. These include glass and steel, which are conveniently designed to be cleaned in a dishwasher and can be reused. 

Alternatively, natural materials like bamboo are also being used to create straws, thanks to their minimal environmental impact. These options make it easier for coffee shops to adopt reusable straws.

Image of cold brew coffee in double wall glass cup next to multilayer kraft paper coffee packaging.

Coffee shops that serve takeaway cold brew coffee with straws and are worried consumers may protest if they stop should ‌invest in straws made from sustainable materials such as glass, bamboo, or even pasta.

At MTPak Coffee, our online Education Centre provides roasters, coffee shops, and baristas unlimited access to information around sustainable business practices. This free resource offers those in the specialty coffee sector advice on how to reduce their carbon footprint and future-proof their coffee business.

Furthermore, we can help roasters and coffee shops boost their environmental credentials through sustainable coffee packaging. Our range of recyclable coffee bags are made from renewable materials such as kraft paper and rice paper, and includes LDPE and PLA-lined bags.

For more information on sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team.

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