Plastic’s fall from grace


  Posted by: probe-admin      6th July 2018

By Helen Minnery, President, British Society of Dental Hygiene and Therapy…

Among the mountains of waste items that are sent to landfill every year around the world, there is one particular material that threatens every natural environment – plastic.

Plastic as a material has been around for several centuries now. It started out in concept when horn and tortoiseshell were used as an early natural plastic in the 1280s and was developed into the material we know today predominantly in the 1800s.1 Since then, various forms of plastic have been used for a wide range of products that we all use in our everyday lives, including everything from food containers and other household items to healthcare equipment and industrial materials. The lightweight, durable and versatile nature of plastic has enabled it to become one of the most commonly used materials in the modern world, but this has presented problems.

A huge topic across the national press right now, the amount of waste plastic generated has increased substantially in the past few decades – from an approximate annual five million tonnes in the 1950s to nearly 100 million tonnes today.2 All this plastic is causing havoc in the natural world, with a huge amount ending up in the ocean and harming wildlife. One study found that sea turtles in nearly all regions investigated ingested debris of some kind (much more than was recorded in 1985), with plastic being the most common.3 Other marine life suffering as a result of plastic waste include seals and sea lions, sea birds, fish, whales and dolphins.4

While the estimated number of plastic straws thrown away every year in the UK has been debated by different sources, it is safe to assume that it is several billion. Plastic straws are commonly found items in beach clean-up campaigns and they have been identified as one source of waste plastic that can be eliminated.

Only months ago, UK ministers announced a ban on the sale of plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds in an attempt to reduce the impact they are having on the natural environment. This is the next step after a charge was made compulsory on all single-use plastic carrier bags used in the UK back in 2015. While the push for continued reduction in waste plastic must be applauded, could the ban of plastic straws have an effect on the already poor oral health of the nation?

Straws and dental health

There are some conflicting views on whether drinking through a straw can benefit oral health. It seems the research indicates that the positioning of the straw can actually make the most difference to its effectiveness in reducing contact between the liquid being consumed and the teeth. While they are fairly old studies now, two papers found that drinking through a straw positioned toward the back of the mouth might help to reduce dental erosion during consumption of soft drinks.5,6

By applying similar logic of reduced liquid contact with the enamel when drinking, it could be postulated that straws have a beneficial impact on the reduction of caries and staining. Particularly useful when consuming drinks that are acidic or high in sugar, there is still an argument for using a straw whenever possible for children and adults alike – if people know how to maximise on the advantages with correct positioning in the mouth. 

In addition, some people may choose to use a straw in order to prevent the symptoms of sensitivity.

Alternative solutions

The ban of plastic straws in the UK could present a major drawback in encouraging the population to improve their everyday oral health habits. However, there are other solutions we can suggest to help more people optimise their hygiene behaviours.

For a start, straws are available in much more environmentally friendly materials, including paper, grain stalks and bamboo, which are biodegradable. Other options include re-usable straws made from materials such as glass, metal and silicone, all of which are practical substitutes.

For patients who decide to stop using straws altogether, or who don’t have access to them in public places, other solutions need to be sought. Reminding patients not to brush their teeth too soon after drinking anything acidic or sugary is important for helping to avoid erosion issues. Chewing sugar-free or xylitol-containing gum after eating might be recommended to help prevent tooth decay. Eating cheese to finish a meal or drinking water could help to reduce staining of the teeth from highly pigmented food and drink.

As with many other current issues, the British Society of Dental Hygiene and Therapy (BSDHT) is keen to help find solutions that protect the environment without compromising patients’ oral health. Sustainable alternatives to plastic straws, in particular, could go some way to encouraging improvement in the current state of oral health in the UK.


1. British Plastics Federation. A history of plastics. [Accessed May 2018]

2. Plastic Free UK. Plastic stats. [Accessed April 2018]

3. Schuyler Q, Hardesty BD, Wilcox C, Townsend K. Global analysis of anthropogenic debris ingestion by sea turtles. Conserv Biol. 2014 Feb;28(1):129-39. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12126. Epub 2013 Aug 5.

4. One Green Planet. These 5 marine animals are dying because of our plastic trash…here’s how we can help. [Accessed May 2018]

5. Edwards M, Ashwood RA, Littlewood SJ, Brocklebank LM, Fung DE. A videofluoroscopic comparison of straw and cup drinking: the potential influence on dental erosion. British Dental Journal. 1998 Sep 12;185(5):244-9.

6. Bassiouny MA, Yang J. Influence of drinking patterns of carbonated beverages on dental erosion. Gen Dent. 2005 May-Jun;53(3):205-10.

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