Rethink Your Things: stir sticks, drink warmers and other names

We may have exiled straws, but there’s another plastic menace right under our nose

Don’t throw these out! While they may look recyclable (and technically are), Recycle BC says they may fall through the cracks of the recycling depot’s sorting belt. (Wade Tomko/The Omega)

Remember using straws? It was only last year that the crusade to end the reign of the single-use items began as the aptly named the “straw ban” that swept across the globe, eliminating the use of straws in small businesses right up to large food chains and entire cities like Seattle and Vancouver.

The viral sensation, voicing cries from environmentalists, sparked change in the hearts of many and within a year we pushed ourselves and corporate business to adopt stainless steel and paper alternatives that were already on the market.

Quite a feat for a company like Starbucks, with over 280,000 coffee houses across the globe. Their goal is to eliminate plastic straws from their stores entirely by 2020, paralleling pledges from other companies like McDonald’s and A&W.

However, we shouldn’t be too quick to pin the planet’s green medal on the coffee chain just yet. There is still some single-use plastic that has gone under our noses for over a decade now.

They’re called Splash Sticks officially but you know them as coffee warmers, stir sticks, drink stoppers, swords for ants— you know.

This siren topped spill stoppers are about as elusive as Starbucks’ secret menu, rolling out in 2008 without much information despite the significant press they received. As the story goes, the splash sticks were a product of Starbucks’ website, a site guests can submit their ideas and recommendations for their preferred coffee chain to implement.

The invention itself dates back a few years earlier to Vietnam in 2004, when Tom Burns, a rocket scientist for Boeing at the time, spilt a coffee on himself, vowing to one day leave rocket science behind to create a device that would plug coffee lid holes. (Insert rocket science joke here.)

StixtoGo, owned by Royal Paper, now distributes to over 30,000 stores worldwide and while no public information could be found, I’m sure Starbucks is one of their clients. Just compare the design of Starbucks’ sticks to the StixtoGo “swirl” design.

So what’s so bad about these multipurpose swords? They’re moderately reusable, with StixtoGo promoting their re-use on their site. The sticks are made out of a recyclable polypropylene plastic, which can be melted down and recreated into something new depending on its resin.

Like many plastics in our life, the problem is how we dispose of them when we’re done. It’s far too easy to toss the green sticks in that black garbage bag to live an extended life in the landfill but even recycling the plastic stir sticks comes with its own issues.

“Plastic stir sticks should not be placed in the curb side blue bins or brought to our depots because at the receiving facilities those items would simply fall through the cracks while on the sorting belt. Anything that is less than an inch wide would likely just end up in landfill,” Kairi Sibul wrote in an email from Recycle BC.

Recyclable or not, even our provincial recycling program discourages the use of Splash Sticks. They don’t even accept biodegradable plastic in their program, recommending only the basic wooden sticks to stir your coffee, which you have to properly dispose of in a provided organics bin.

The best solution it seems is not to use them at all. Besides mobile orders, Starbucks baristas keep the splash swords on their side of the counter. It’s our conscious decision to ask to have one of these plastic sticks bestowed upon our white and green coffee cups.

Like come on, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist not to spill your coffee.