Straws have been in the news a lot lately. Although straws make up only a very small portion of plastic waste, they are a public symbol of the environmental impacts of the plastics industry. In this article, we’ll examine the history of straws and the benefits provided by using plastics to make straws. We’ll end by taking a look at how the plastics industry will adapt in the face of pressure to eliminate plastic straws. Much of the information contained in this article was sourced from this National Geographic feature.
The Name Says It All
When we hear the word straw, we tend to think of a plastic tube, perhaps brightly coloured used for drinking liquids. We take for granted that straws do not affect the flavour of our food, that they always work, and that they do not get soggy or fall apart in the drink.
None of these advantages existed for the original straws – and they were just that, pieces of straw, typically rye grass.
In 1888, according to legend, American inventor Marvin Stone was sipping from just such a straw when he decided he was tired of having to replace his straw partway through drinking because it would get soggy and disintegrate. At that time, servers would often bring a container of straw to the table and allow diners to select their own straw.
Marvin decided that he could do better. He created a prototype paper straw by wrapping strips of paper around a pencil and gluing them together. By 1889, his straws were for sale across the United States and soon spread around the world.
The next breakthrough in straw technology came in the 1930s, when another inventor, Joseph Friedman, realized that bendable straws would be easier to drink through. Friedman inserted a screw into a paper straw and wrapped a piece of string around it tightly, creating a series of creases. The bendy straw was born.
Plastics Take Over
Friedman sold his company, the Flexible Straw Corporation, in 1969. The company that acquired it, Maryland Cup Corporation, soon switched production to plastic straws. Plastic straws had many benefits – they could be stuck through the lid of a fast food cup without fraying or tearing, they didn’t fall apart in drinks, and they were lightweight and cheap.
Today, most straws are made of polypropylene, replacing the brittle polystyrene that dominated the first few decades of plastic straw production.
A Future for Plastic Straws
Some plastics industry writers are sceptical that the market for plastic straws will continue to grow in the future. Plastics Today writer Norbert Sparrow went so far as to suggest that “ the battle is irredeemably lost for those of us on the other side of the plastics barricades”. However, given the advent of biodegradable plastics, which have been extensively featured on this blog, some are holding out hope that society will continue to benefit from the practical advantages of plastic straws without having to deal with the environmental drawbacks. As is often the case, only time will tell.