My mother liked to take us to an old-fashioned soda fountain for special occasions when we were young. I liked the coin-operated vintage music machines that played songs from piano rolls or hole-punched metal disks. I liked the marble table tops and the wrought-iron chairs. I liked the egg salad sandwiches cut into triangle quarters, and of course the milk shakes were excellent. The only thing I didn’t like about this trip to a time my great-grandmother might have found familiar was the paper straw.
The paper straw was, I felt, a worthless invention, as it became soggy after a few minutes in my chocolate malted. The waitress would bring a new one, of course, but I’d run through a few of the paper straws before my shake was done. Authenticity triumphed over convenience here, so if you wanted to go on this outing with Mom, you just learned to suck it up. At home, we had a set of pastel-colored, straight, aluminum straws from when my mom was a girl. They had a little paddle on the bottom. My mother said that was to scoop up your milk shake. I thought they were pretty and retro, so I liked to use them, but they were a pain to keep clean, so they didn’t come out very often.
The older I got, the more abundant the plastic straw seemed, although it is quite likely that I just did not see them very often as a kid because we did not eat out that much. Today, if you order a drink out, the plastic straw is often already plunked in your beverage when it arrives. So many of us use these straws that, in the United States alone, we go through half a billion plastic straws each day (yes, billion with a B). That’s shocking given there are only 325 million of us in the country!
The first straw was found in the tomb of a Sumerian dating from circa 3000 BCE. Art in the tomb shows two Sumerians drinking beer with straws from a large jar, presumably to avoid the sediment at the bottom of the container, and a gold, inlaid straw was found in that same location. Of course that is just the first evidence of straw use. As long as there were hollow reeds and grasses, ancient people were likely using them as straws. In fact, this natural use of grasses gave us the modern straw, as the inventor of my childhood frustration, the paper straw, didn’t like the grassy taste his rye straw gave to his afternoon adult beverage as it disintegrated into the alcohol. To fix this travesty, Marvin Chester Stone wound paper around a pencil, coated it with paraffin, and promptly patented that sucker in 1888.
There were improvements along the way to the modern plastic straw: Joseph B. Friedman made the straw bend. He received a patent for that in 1937, creating the accordion shape by crimping a paper straw on a screw, and by 1939 he was selling a lot of them to hospitals because they made it easier for reclining patients to drink. Plastic straws came in, competing with paper straws at first, because the plastic ones were too buoyant for fizzy drinks; plastic finally won the straw wars because the plastic straw could be jabbed through a plastic lid, whereas a paper straw could not. Indeed, by the time I was a kid, the plastic straw was ubiquitous, and the paper ones, like my nemesis found at ye olde soda shoppe, were old-timey.
And with the rise of fast food and more people eating out, we arrive at 2018 and 1.5 straws per person per day. Of course, if you are in the straw business, this is great news. If you’re a sea creature, not so much. The plastic in straws doesn’t biodegrade—it just breaks down into ever smaller pieces—so the problem of plastic straws in the environment doesn’t go away. Regrettably, straws are also hard to recycle. Most are made of #5 plastic, which certain recyclers will take, but just as they float in fizzy drinks, they are also too light to make it reliably through the recycling machines. They bounce off the belts and fall through the screens. They end up in landfills or, worse, blowing around in the environment, where they often end up in the ocean. In fact, plastic straws are now one of the top-ten items found in beach cleanups, and zoos often don’t allow them because they too easily end up in the animal enclosures. Animals may think the straws are food and ingest them or otherwise become entangled with them. One viral video this spring graphically showed a sea turtle having a plastic straw removed from its nose, where it was obstructing its airway and causing breathing issues.
Luckily, people are becoming increasingly aware of the plastic straw problem. The United Kingdom announced they would ban all single-use plastics (straws, drink stirrers, etc.), and the law is set to go into effect next year. Seattle’s law banning straws begins July 1. Reimagined paper straws (that thankfully don’t collapse as quickly as they did in days of yore), bamboo straws, compostable straws, even pasta straws are being tried in various markets. We bought sets of metal and silicon straws for home use, and the “hard to clean” aspect of my mother’s metal straws was solved because they came with flexible brushes, so you can give the insides a good swab.
Out in the world, we are learning to refuse the straw. This isn’t as easy as it sounds because it is so ingrained for the waitstaff to give a straw with your water or soda. The key is to try to remember to say you don’t need a straw when you order, otherwise your drink may come with the straw already in. Often the waitstaff is trained to leave straws on the table when they set down the drinks, and we’ve had this happen even after we said no to the straw. Then the trick is to get the wait person to pick the still-wrapped straw up and return it to the pocket of his or her apron, because if the straw is still on the table at the end of the meal, the bus person is likely to just clear it with the rest of the trash.
Actually, this is a conversation starter with the waitstaff. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many of them are aware of the problem and say they are actively working to get their managers to make a change (although they admit the constrawversy will continue as long as the plastic ones remain the most economical). Of course there are people who actually need plastic straws to drink because of a disability or medical issue, but the rest of us can cut straw use by refusing the straw or using a personal travel straw while out.
Still, you may say, this straw thing is only a small part of our plastic use. And that’s true, but once a straw goes into use, it has a life expectancy of less than an hour from unwrapping to trash, so it is an easy place to think about reducing our dependency on plastic. We aren’t going to solve our pollution issue by banning straws alone, but it is an excellent first step on our way to the last (plastic) straw.
Text: © Rebecca Bigelow;
Photo 1: Costons Soda Fountain, 1909, Public Domain;
Photo 2: The Met, Public Domain;
Photo 3: Stone’s Julep Straws Ad, Public Domain;
Photo 4: Horia Varlan, Wiki Commons
Video of turtle having straw removed from its nose: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wH878t78bw
Patent for the bendy straw: https://patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/01/04/f2/13db9a8c162c5b/US2094268.pdf
The Met’s page on the Sumerian straw artwork (see upper right of photo): https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/324572