The Trouble With Plastic Straws

The plastic straw is a simple invention with relatively modest value: for a few moments, the device helps make beverages easier to drink. And then, due to reasons of sanitation and ease of use, the straws are thrown away, never to be seen again.

Except, of course, the straw you use in your iced coffee doesn’t biodegrade and stays around basically forever, often as ocean junk. That, understandably, is leading to chatter around banning plastic straws, because of how much damage they do to the environment.

While there is no global movement to ban straws afoot just yet, maybe we should all start thinking about it, because the problem with straws is one of scale. According to National Geographic, the world uses over 500,000,000 straws every single day; which is more than one per person daily.

The resulting waste is difficult to recycle and often shows up in landfills, at sea, and on the beach (where it is particularly dangerous for marine wildlife).

But it wasn’t always this way. The modern day-straw was an attempt to solve the failings of a device that was very much biodegradable. And that replacement was itself biodegradable. The problem is what came after.

A Brief History of the Modern-Day Straw

Marvin Stone, perhaps more than any other person, deserves credit for making plastic straws useful and accessible. But he doesn’t deserve the blame for what straws have become.

Stone, a serial inventor who was known for manufacturing a variety of products with a cylinder shape, such as cigarette holders. Born in Ohio in 1842, but based in Washington, D.C., for much of his life, he launched his career as a journalist but eventually followed his father’s inventive spirit into the realm of manufacturing. Being a D.C. resident, he was a big fan of mint juleps, a drink popularised in the city during the 19th century by famed Kentucky Senator Henry Clay. Stone would order the drinks at Aman’s, a well-known restaurant in D.C. during the era—though he was disappointed by the rye straws, which didn't enhance his drinking pleasure.

Yes, that’s right, before plastic straws, we used straws made of rye grass — produced naturally, from the ground. The manufacturing process, according to 'The Small Grains', a book by Mark Alfred Carleton, was closer to wheat than plastic.

The rye straw, while the first widely used variety of drinking straw, had some significant problems — including that the straws affected the taste of the drink and that they had a tendency to disintegrate into the beverage, leaving sediment at the bottom of the beverage.

Stone was just the guy to fix the problem. He was already making cigarette holders at his nearby factory and had recently patented a fountain pen holder, so he knew a thing or two about building cylinder-shaped objects. So he wrapped a sheet of paper around a pencil, added some glue, and suddenly he had invented the paper straw. He gave his initial supply to Aman’s for his personal use but found that people he ran into at the bar were impressed enough with his invention that they wanted their own. That led Stone to patent the device, and within a few years, he had cornered the market on paper straws, which became popular with the rise of soda fountains at pharmacies. Indeed, not long after he filed for that patent, his factory was producing 2 million straws per day.

But the straws had a problem — simply, they weren’t as durable as plastic, and while they didn’t negatively affect the taste of the soda like rye straws did, they did eventually disintegrate in the beverages. By the 1960s, plastic straws, which initially carried a sense of novelty for the public because they could be made clear, had usurped the paper version entirely. Good for plastic. Bad for the environment.

Sipping Alternatives

Nowadays we are perhaps more aware than ever of the weaknesses of the plastic straw, bendable or not. And more than one entrepreneur has tried to create new alternatives that solve the problems of both paper and plastic. Heck, one guy is even trying to bring back the rye straw!

Many of these straw varieties rely on permanence over disposability and biodegradability, which means you’ll be carrying a straw around with you — no matter how weird that seems. But hey, given the current trend towards edible cutlery, anything is possible!

Perhaps the most intriguing natural option for straw drinking is the bamboo straw. The company Brush With Bamboo, which makes a bamboo-based toothbrush, also sells a set of bamboo drinking straws, which are handmade in India and designed to be reused for many years. As a result, the company sells a 12-pack of bamboo straws for $20 — or more than a dollar a straw.

Other materials, like metal, have also become common straw vectors. And more than one small-scale manufacturer, like the Michigan company Strawesome, has tried selling straws made from glass. 

On the disposable front, the main alternative has become corn, which has perhaps gotten the closest with regards to disposability and flexibility. Eco-Products, a Certified B Corporation, sells plastic materials to stores and other retailers made from Ingeo, a biopolymer often produced from corn that’s compostable and renewable.

While not horribly cheap compared to regular plastic straws — they sell for about a quarter a pop in small quantities — Eco-Products’ compostable straws are a lot better for the environment.

And hey, if you can’t beat them, eat them — the straws that is! Starbucks earned a whole lot of buzz a couple of years ago after it started selling cookie straws to go with its Frappuccinos, and it’s not a phenomenon that’s completely unheard of — candy straws and beef straws are things that exist. But perhaps the most natural approach to edible straw-making might be ice straws, available to make yourself via Amazon

Changing Habits
Let's be honest; there’s something strangely appealing about the basic disposability of cups, cutlery and straws that we don’t have to carry around with us everywhere. We live in a disposable culture, and we probably throw away more disposable utensils than anything else.

But there are consequences to that disposability. In 2015, a sea turtle became the face of a budding anti-straw movement after a gruesome video of that turtle getting a straw removed from its nose drew millions of views online. It’s here, but a word of warning that it’s disturbing. 

That video is one of a few reasons why we’re starting to see campaigns to cut back on straw usage pick up in a big way. It’s easy fodder for corporate responsibility campaigns — Bacardi, a company that has probably benefited more than most from the existence of straws, started one last year — and multiple nonprofit campaigns have coalesced around the issue, including The Last Plastic Straw and One Less Straw.

Which doesn’t mean we have to ban straws to stop them from polluting the environment, but there is a reason to discuss changing habits. How much harder is it to drink your coffee out of a cup that you bring with you? If you end up using a straw, is there a way to get just a little bit more mileage out of that piece of plastic? And if the issue matters to you, does that affect the places you go to buy things and dine/drink? 

The problem with straws is that they’re so insignificant that we take them for granted. Perhaps we shouldn’t. Would you give up straws or find an eco-alternative?