Bailing on Straws

Costons soda_fountain 1909

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!

Sumerian Straw

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.

paper straws

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.

plastic straws

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:

Patent for the bendy straw:

The Met’s page on the Sumerian straw artwork (see upper right of photo):

Additional Reading:



Science Is Golden

I’m what you might call science adjacent. I’m not a scientist, but I keep crossing paths with them. As an editor, I spend a lot of time correcting their grammar, and on a day-to-day basis, I share my house with two of them: my husband and our daughter.

I may have ended up as an English and history major, but I’ve always liked science. It’s useful for everyday life. Need to bake a cake? Chemistry will help you there. Planting a garden? Show gratitude to botany for your knowledge of Hardiness Zones. Need to know how scary a theme park ride is? Ask about the gravitational force on Space Mountain (calculated by a local news team1 as more than 3.5), and you can nope right out of that ride thanks to physics.

Science appeals to my logical side. For a theory to be accepted, it has to be replicable, so scientists have to be able to lay out all the steps for how they reached their conclusion. “Because I said so,” may be the fallback position of frustrated parents everywhere, but it would not fly in a peer-reviewed science journal. And when science gets things wrong—and it does, after all the earth is not flat, there are no canals on Mars, and the planet Vulcan only exists in the Star Trek universe2—other scientists eventually correct the mistake with new evidence.

Scientists don’t know everything, nor do they claim to, and they don’t always explain things to lay people in a way that they can understand. Sometimes their scientific bent even gets them into trouble. When we were dating, my husband told me he was 99 percent sure that he loved me, but he could never be 100 percent sure because he was a scientist.3 I married him anyway.

The upshot of all this is when the vast majority of scientists agree on something, it behooves us to listen. Scientists agree that climate change is real, and 97 percent of climate change scientists agree that humans are causing it. Now, granted, that is not as certain as my husband is that he loves me, but it’s pretty darn close.

So when scientists tell us that climate change is real (and coming soon to a city near you!), we should listen.  After all, if you were in the way of stampeding heffalumps, and someone yells, “Heffalumps!” to warn you, it would be unreasonable to stand around debating the origins, causes, and motivations of A.A. Milne characters run amok. No, the first thing any reasonable person would do is to try to stabilize the situation: get out of the way, seek shelter, or otherwise try to reduce the number of rogue creatures escaped from the Hundred Acre Wood.4

The same theory applies to climate change. Even without agreement on the causes, it is clear that there are things we can do to mitigate the effects of climate change and to try to stabilize the situation. I know I’m just an English and history major, but it seems to me that we can reduce our carbon footprint now and worry about the whys and wherefores later. After all, the planet doesn’t care where exactly the greenhouse gases are coming from, all that matters is to reduce them.

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for the current administration to recognize the heffalump, er, elephant in the room. We can each take steps to limit our own carbon footprints. And with these few small individual steps, together we could make great strides. That said, governments can create the most change because they can affect general policy. If a government is unwilling to act, it makes sense to ask, “Who benefits if we don’t do those things?” The answer seems to be that certain corporations, politicians, and individuals have a vested self-interest in keeping carbon emissions unregulated.

But climate change is only one example of science under attack by the current administration. Being science adjacent, I’ve been alarmed this week when our new president has set in motion several anti-science policies, including issuing gag orders on science communities and canceling long-scheduled scientific conferences. Silence may be golden, but in this case it may be deadly. For science to thrive, research needs to see the light of day, so that other scientists can hold it to the high standards that come from reproducible results. Silencing the scientific community when we are on the cusp of a global crisis is crazy. Scientists are pushing back with alt-websites and planned marches on Washington, but we non-scientists need to speak up as well.

Even if you mixed up mitosis and meiosis throughout your high school biology class, you can still appreciate science—from the computer you are reading this on to the life-saving medications that extend both the quality and quantity of life to the special effects used in the latest blockbuster.  I promise you can learn about these things without having to memorize a single formula. If your current home is free from vector-borne diseases (translation: bugs that carry scary illnesses that they then transmit to humans) or you can get a variety of fruits and vegetables from the local supermarket year round, and you’d like to keep these things, consider reading up on climate change. By learning how to help—from recycling to speaking up for scientists in the wild—you can make a difference. Anyone who likes living on this planet has a stake in the outcome.  As the protest sign says: There Is No Planet B.


Text ©2017 by Rebecca Bigelow


  1. See for discussion of G forces on Disney rides.
  2. Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier, a nineteenth-century mathematician who had successfully used math to predict the existence of Neptune, hypothesized the planet Vulcan could be found in Mercury’s orbit. Other scientists confirmed its existence at first, but later scientists realized that the anomalies in the orbit were not caused by a new planet but by the proximity to the sun. See an article on Real Clear Science for further discussion.
  3. This space available for the rebuttal and justification to be provided by said husband.
  4.  Apologies to A.A. Milne and his fans. No heffalumps were harmed in the writing of this piece.


Additional Reading

For now, both the EPA and NASA have climate change websites available.

This is a list of the alt-twitter sites set up by scientists after the gag orders started rolling out. Many of these also have Facebook pages.

Rolling Stone magazine published an article in 2015 that discussed some of the effects of climate change that were already noticeable and happening at a much faster rate than predicted.

This site messes with my OCD a little bit. They advertise 50 ways individuals can help combat climate change, but then they only list 49. Overlook that and read the list anyway.

If you have kids, NASA has a page just for them.