A Brief History Of The (Pointless) Plastic Straw

How did such an unnecessary item become so hard to live without?

In 2017 the Ocean Conservancy conducted an international beach clean up, with volunteers across 112 countries collecting rubbish from their beaches. They collected 18 million pounds of rubbish from the beaches. Much of it was plastic waste, including over 400,000 plastic straws.

Plastic straws have now become ubiquitous with environmentalism. They became Twitter-famous when a photo of a turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose went viral.

Given that they’re largely pointless, and that we can definitely do without them, they make sense as a target of the plastic-free movement. With that said, it seems strange that they became so popular in the first place. So let’s take a look at the history of the (pointless) plastic straw.

The first straws

Straws are no modern invention: humans have been using them drink from for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found straws made from precious materials like gold and lapis lazuli in the ruins of Sumerian cities and tombs, dating from around 3000BC.

It’s thought that Sumerians would drink beer through straws, meaning that they could drink the liquid whilst avoiding the fermentation byproducts remaining in it.

Where did the name ‘straw’ come from?

In the 1800s, the cut hollow stems of cereal grasses were commonly used as drinking tubes. When these grasses are dried they are, of course, called ‘straw’ — hence the name of such drinking tubes being ‘straws’.

These grass straws were functional, entirely free, and very easy to find. But one man, by the name of Marvin Stone, thought he could do better.

As the legend goes, on a hot summer day in 1880 Marvin was drinking a mint julep, using a piece of rye grass as a drinking straw. After it had been sat in his drink for a while, the rye grass began to disintegrate. Marvin thought he could create something better than that.

He worked in the cigarette industry, and inspired by this he wrapped strips of paper around a pencil, and then glued them together in place. This gave him the first early prototype of a paper drinking straw. After some development work, he submitted a patent for the straw in 1888 — the very first patent for a drinking straw. By 1890 his factory, named Stone Industrial, was mass producing his paper straws for commercial use.

Bendy straws

Marvin’s original paper straws were a simple cylindrical structure. It wasn’t until the 1930s that drinking straws developed a bend.

Inventor Joseph Friedman noticed that his daughter was struggling to drink her milkshake through a standard, straight paper straw. So, he inserted a screw into the straw, wrapped floss around the screw’s grooves, and then took the screw out again. These indentations meant that the straw could bend without breaking — the same design which is still used today. Friedman patented this invention and developed a company called the Flex-Straw company which sold them commercially.

They were quickly adopted by hospitals, where they allowed patients to drink fluids whilst lying down in their hospital bed.

From paper to plastic

Plastic didn’t become commonly used as a material until the middle of the 20th century. World War II was a key driver for this. Most traditional manufacturing materials, and especially metals, were needed for the war effort, to manufacture planes and equipment. This meant that plastic suddenly became very desirable, as a way to continue producing consumer goods during the wartime.

Plastic had the advantage of being cheap to produce and lightweight to transport, and so after the war ended manufacturers continued to use plastic as a material. At the same time, the world was starting to come out of the economic depression of the war years. Families had disposable income on their hands, and they wanted to spend it on the consumer goods which had been inaccessible during the war. And these modern, consumer goods were made from plastic — things like telephones, radios, televisions…

…and straws.

The use of plastic in manufacturing had become efficient and, therefore, cheap. This meant that it’s use extended from larger consumer goods into all areas. It was cheaper to produce plastic straws than paper, and they were much more durable — especially in the context of restaurants, which were (and still are) the main customer of straws.

The backlash against pointless plastic straws

So the plastic straw had taken off. You wouldn’t see a restaurant or bar without them. They were also pretty common in households too, for parties and for entertaining children with.

And then came the backlash.

It took us a couple of hundred years, but we’ve now come to the realisation that these plastic straws are hugely damaging to our environment and to marine life, and that they’re entirely unnecessary.

Starbucks has released plans to phase out plastic straws in all of their shops by 2020. McDonalds announced that plastic straws will no longer be offered in all UK and Ireland restaurants. Alaska Airlines will be the first airline to phase out plastic straws and stirrers on flights.

These are just a handful of examples. It already seems that plastic straws are now the exception, and no longer the expected. It’s pretty uncommon to order a drink in a restaurant or bar in 2019 and be automatically given a plastic straw — reusable metal straws or biodegradable paper straws are now the new normal.

Banning straws isn’t going to solve our plastic pollution problem, or stop climate change taking hold. But it is a start, and it’s a pretty easy place to start. So if you haven’t already, now’s the time to start saying no to plastic straws.

Ramblings on communication and our climate crisis🌱

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