Let’s look at just one example: Some restaurants and bars have replaced their plastic straws with reusable metal variants. But there’s a hitch, as the New York Post recently reported: customers keep taking the metal straws home with them.
This leaves restaurants holding the short straw, so to speak. Metal straws are expensive — perhaps a dollar apiece (or more) versus a penny or two for the plastic version — and so replacement costs add up quickly. 1
This might not be so problematic if the metal straws that customers walk off with get reused frequently. But most probably go on display as novelties or sit forgotten in a utensil drawer. And this means the metal straws — which presumably required mining, plus large amounts of energy to convert into sheet metal and then fashion it into a cylindrical tube — don’t provide the intended environmental benefit.
I’m not aware of any research on the relative environmental costs of producing different types of straws. But the evidence on reusable grocery bags is not heartening.