For such small, tasteless and virtually weightless items, single-use plastic straws have lately attracted a lot of attention — much of it hostile.
They’ve been banned in some large cities — including Seattle and Vancouver, Canada — and other population centers such as San Francisco and New York City are considering doing the same. Even small municipalities are hopping onto the bandwagon.
Starbucks, with 28,000 stores around the world, has promised to stop using plastic straws by 2020. That decision “will eliminate more than 1 billion straws a year,” reports Bonnie Rochman, a writer for the Starbucks Corp.
Single-use plastic straws are an environmental problem. Various sources estimate that the U.S. alone uses 500 million of them daily. But this wasn’t always true.
Straws have long history
The straw is one of the oldest eating utensils. “In the ruins of Sumerian cities and tombs, archeologists managed to find straws made from gold and the precious stone lapis lazuli. … More-simple designs were used far earlier than that, most probably created from carved wood or natural hollow plants,” according to eatingutensils.net.
No one knows why rich residents of Sumeria — located in what is, today, southern Iraq — chose to use straws. So fast-forward to the early 1900s, when Americans began to use them “at an estimated 100,000 soda fountains in drugstores, ice cream parlors, department stores … and sidewalk stands,” writes Anne Funderberg in her book Sundae Best: A History of Soda Fountains.
Because of health concerns — tuberculosis, polio and influenza were still fairly common — customers who drank sodas and other soft drinks began demanding straws, in order to avoid touching their lips to a possibly unclean glass that someone else had used. As a result, many soda fountains began providing straws — some made of paper, but many made of natural rye grass.
Farmers to the rescue
Farmers who raised animals such as cows and chickens already planted rye grass to feed them, and selling rye-grass straws became a profitable sideline. To make the straws, “the farmer cut the rye while it was still green and took it to the barn to dry. … After the grain head was cut off and set aside for fodder, the farmer peeled off the stalks’ outer covering and made uniform bundles, according to length and diameter,” Funderberg explains. “Home-grown American straws dominated the market.”
Due to continuing sanitation concerns and advances in labor-saving technology, more-hygienic paper straws — they weren’t touched by human hands — began to replace the rye-grass versions. Some straw-makers wrapped the paper straws “in tissue or waxed paper. This further enhanced sanitation because the soda clerk handed the wrapped straw to the customer,” Funderberg writes.
Problems for paper straws
After World War II, “plastic became cheaper — as did fast-food meals, with sodas in to-go cups with crosshairs that tore apart flimsier paper straws,” writes Emelyn Rude in the July 23, 2018, Time magazine article “How plastic straws became popular.”
So, a victim of its own durability and success, the ubiquitous single-use plastic straw has become, in many circles, reviled. It can survive hot liquids or cold; the crosshairs of plastic lids (themselves disposable, as are the cups in which the drink is served); and — unfortunately — decades in a landfill, ocean or along the side of the road.
But how long the plastic straw can last, given current concerns about the environment, we’ll have to see.