A drinking straw is a utensil that is intended to carry the contents of a beverage to one's mouth. Straws are commonly made from plastics but environmental concerns and new regulation has led to rise in reusable and biodegradable straws. These straws are often made of silicone, cardboard, or metal. A straw is used by placing one end in one's mouth and the other in a beverage. By employing suction, the air pressure in one's mouth drops causing atmospheric pressure to force the liquid through the straw and into the mouth. Drinking straws can be straight or have an angle-adjustable bellows segment. Drinking straws have historically been intended as a single-use product and several countries, regions, and municipalities have banned single-use plastic straws to reduce plastic pollution. Additionally, some companies have even voluntarily banned or reduced the number of plastic straws distributed from their premises.
The first known straws were made by the Sumerians, and were used for drinking beer, probably to avoid the solid byproducts of fermentation that sink to the bottom. The oldest drinking straw in existence, found in a Sumerian tomb dated 3,000 BCE, was a gold tube inlaid with the precious blue stone lapis lazuli. Argentines and their neighbors have, for several hundred years, used (for drinking mate tea) a similar metallic device called a bombilla, that acts as both a straw and a sieve. In the 1800s, the rye grass straw came into fashion because it was cheap and soft, but it had an unfortunate tendency to turn to mush when put in liquid.
American Marvin C. Stone patented the modern drinking straw, made of paper, in 1888, to address the shortcomings of the rye grass straw. He came upon the idea while drinking a mint julep on a hot day in Washington, D.C.; the taste of the rye was mixing with the drink and giving it a grassy taste, which he found unsatisfactory. He wound paper around a pencil to make a thin tube, slid out the pencil from one end, and applied glue between the strips. He later refined it by building a machine that would coat the outside of the paper with wax to hold it together, so the glue would not dissolve in bourbon.
Plastic straws became widespread following World War II. The materials used in their manufacture were inexpensive, and the types of restaurant fare that they accompanied had become more affordable and popular.
In 1930, Otto W. Dieffenbach (Sr.) developed and produced a cellophane drinking straw in Baltimore MD. His company known as Glassips Inc. produced straws for restaurants and other products. One patent dates to 1954. The Sr. Mr. Dieffenbach served as chairman until 1972 and the business, then based in Towson MD. was sold in 1979.
One of the first mass-produced twisted straw was Sip-N-See invented by Milton Dinhofer who later came up with the idea and designs for the chimp in the iconic game, Barrel of Monkeys. Dinhofer originally patented his straw in the shape of a scissor with two loops on top, but Macy's would not carry the straw unless it had a character on it. They suggested Dinhofer make three straws (eventually patented in 1950): a cowboy, a clown and an animal for which he made an elephant. Each of his characters was attached to a looping soft polyethylene straw, and users were to sip from another detachable, small, straight, straw of acetate. Rexor Corp. copyrighted the straw the same year, but Macy's decided not to carry them. Dinhofer was told the selling price was too low. Dinhofer then turned to Woolworth and convinced the chain to let him deliver some to several of their stores near his home. After one weekend of sales, Woolworth's placed an order for all of its stores and Sip-N-See went national. The straws were sold in individual boxes, and more characters were eventually added. Other buyers began to carry it, too, and it was marketed as an "action drinking toy." Sip-N-See went on to sell approximately 6 million units, and, a decade later, the s-shape of the arms on the cowboy straw would inspire Dinhofer's monkey design for Barrel of Monkeys.
Drinking straws come in many variations and are manufactured using a variety of materials.
The most common form of drinking straw is made of the thermoplastic polymer Polypropylene. This plastic is known for its durability, lightness, and ability to be manufactured at a low cost. Other plastic polymers that exhibit these traits include polyethylene (PE) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
These attributes are what have made the traditional plastic straw ubiquitous in fast food establishments and take-out orders around the world. Additionally, other advantages of plastic straws include their ability to be molded into different shapes and sizes while also being able to withstand a wide range of temperatures without deforming. This is important because straws must be temperature resistant and thermally insulated because they can be used in both hot and cold beverages.
One interesting variation of the plastic straw is the "bendy straw", commonly referred to in the industry as an "articulated straw". This straw has a concertina-type hinge near its top to allow for improved maneuverability of the straw when drinking a beverage, especially from a low angle. The articulated straw was invented by Joseph Friedman in 1937. He quickly developed the straw after he saw his daughter struggling to use a normal straight straw.
Another variation of the plastic straw, the “spoon straw”, has a spoon-like tip at the bottom, and is often used with iced slush beverages. Additionally, plastic straws with wider openings are commonly used to drink bubble tea, to better accommodate its characteristic tapioca pearls. The tip of these straws is often cut at an angle creating a point which allows one to use the straw to puncture the plastic cover of bubble tea drinks.
Plastic straws can also be embellished with some forms marketed as "crazy" straws, having a number of twists and turns at the top. These straws are often marketed and can be entertaining for young children. The crazy straw was invented by Arthur Philip Gildersleeve and patented in 1936.
Environmental concerns, stemming from the impact plastic waste has had on the ocean, have led to a rise in reusable straws. Reusable straws are primarily being manufactured out of Polylactic acid (PLA), silicone, and metal. Polylactic acid and silicone straws are the most similar in texture and feel to their plastic counterparts, however, they fit into the category of biodegradable polymers. These types of straws have some benefits over other more ecologically conscious straws because they are resistant to disintegrating in one's drink and provide adequate insulation for hot and cold drinks. One manufacturer of silicon straws even claims that their straws can be burned into biodegradable ash.
Metal straws are another reusable alternative. However, they are highly conductive of heat and thus ill-suited for hot beverages.
Bamboo straws are making headway into the reusable straw industry with their sustainability, inexpensive cost, and relative ease of cleaning.
Single-use biodegradable straws are also being used in place of plastic straws and are being manufactured in many alternative materials.
As of 2010, the 10 largest emitters of oceanic plastic pollution (including plastic straws) were, from the most to the least, China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Bangladesh.
The image of a plastic straw dislodged into the nostril of a sea turtle that quickly spread across all forms of media also spurred the elevation of awareness regarding the potential danger of plastic straws for marine life. The scientist who uploaded the video remarks that it is the emotional pull of the imagery, rather than the significance of the plastic straw itself in the plastic debacle, that garnered such high viewership.
One anti-straw advocacy group has estimated that about 500 million straws are used daily in the United States alone – an average 1.6 straws per capita per day. This statistic has been criticized as inaccurate, because it was approximated by Milo Cress, who was 9 years old at the time, after surveying straw manufacturers. This figure has been widely cited by major news organizations. In 2017 the market research firm Freedonia Group estimated the number to be 390 million.
Plastic straws amounted to 5-7.5% of all waste collected from beaches during the 2017 International Cleanup Event, conducted by Ocean Conservancy, making it a minor contamination source, yet considered easy to avoid. In total, they are 0.022% of plastic waste emitted to oceans.
Microplastics pollution is a concern if plastic waste is improperly dumped. If plastic straws are improperly disposed of, they can be transported via water into soil ecosystems, and others, where they break down into smaller, more hazardous pieces than the original plastic straw.
Water can break down plastic waste into microplastic and nanoplastic particles. These particles are capable of transmitting harmful substances or can themselves prove dangerous, as they have been shown to negatively affect the surrounding environment.
Alternatives to plastic straws, some reusable, exist, although they are not always readily available, or deemed to be of sufficient quality for all users (including, in particular, those with a disability). Paper straws have proliferated as a popular alternative, although they are prone to losing their rigidity when soaked inside a beverage, and in some cases are not durable enough for thicker beverages such as milkshakes. Metal straws are more durable, but they are incapable of being bent, and some restaurants have reported them as a target of theft.
Some critics have argued that paper and metal alternatives are no more environmentally-friendly than plastic, citing the environmental impacts of paper and mining, and that paper straws would likely end up in landfills and not be composted. In August 2019, after deploying paper straws in the United Kingdom, McDonald's stated that its straws could not actually be recycled at present, since their thickness "makes it difficult for them to be processed by our waste solution providers". The chain stated that they went towards energy production, and not to landfills.
Polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable plastic, requires 69% fewer fossil fuel resources to produce than plastic, but it requires very specific conditions to break down fully. Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), derived from plant oil, is marine biodegradable. In 2021, the manufacturing company Wincup was distributing a PHA product branded as "the Phade straw."
Of late several eco-friendly alternative materials have been tried. Among them are hay straws, bamboo straws, seaweed straws, and straws made from naturally dried fallen coconut leaves.
Not all attempts to be more environmentally friendly are in earnest, though. In an attempt to artificially boost sales, some groups have been guilty of “greenwashing,” or falsely marketing their products as a viable environmentally friendly alternative, when it is actually just as harmful to the environment, or worse. These marketing tactics draw in well-meaning consumers who believe they are helping the environment (often by paying more for a product), when they are instead encouraging these misleading strategies.
To combat this scheme, TerraChoice, an America-based advertising company, crafted a rubric to calculate the amount of greenwashing prevalent in a product. They determined that 95% of products they surveyed at American and Canadian stores are guilty of at least one act of greenwashing.
Plastic straw bans and proposals
In the late-2010s, a movement towards laws banning or otherwise restricting the use of plastic straws and other single-use plastics emerged. Environmental groups have encouraged consumers to object to "forced" inclusion of plastic straws with food service. The movement followed the discovery of plastic particles in oceanic garbage patches and larger plastic waste-reduction efforts that focused on banning plastic bags in some jurisdictions. It has been intensified by viral videos, including one of biologists Nathan J. Robinson removing a plastic straw from a sea turtle's nostril.
On 5 July 2018, the city of Rio de Janeiro became the first state capital of Brazil to forbid the distribution of plastic straws, "forcing restaurants, coffee shops, bars and the like, beach huts and hawkers of the municipality to use and provide to its customers only biodegradable and/or recyclable paper straws individually".
In May 2018, the Vancouver city council voted in favor of adopting a "Single Use Reduction Strategy", targeting single-use styrofoam containers and plastic straws. The council approved the first phase of the regulations in November 2019, expected to be in place by April 2020, barring the distribution of single-use straws unless requested (with straws on hand required to be bendable for accessibility reasons). Bubble tea shops will be given a one-year exemption.
In June 2019, in the lead-up to the federal election, prime minister Justin Trudeau announced his intent to enact legislation restricting the use of petroleum-based single-used plastics as early as 2021.
The UK government committed at most £4 million to “Plastics innovation: towards zero waste” in the summer of 2017 in an attempt to mitigate the circulation of unnecessary plastic. In this endeavor, eleven projects secured the full amount in government support. These projects each invented new ways to recycle used plastic products and prevent them from reaching landfills. In 2018, Queen Elizabeth II banned all single-use plastic items from her palaces.
On 19 April 2018, ahead of Earth Day, a proposal to phase out single-use plastics was announced during the meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government. It is estimated that as of 2018, about 23 million straws are used and discarded daily in the UK. In May 2019, England announced that it would ban single-use plastic straws, stirring sticks and cotton buds in April 2020: only registered pharmacies will be allowed to sell straws to the public, and restaurants may only offer them by request of customers. This was pushed back to October 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In the first half of 2018, three towns in Massachusetts banned petrochemical plastic straws directly in the case of Provincetown, and as part of broader sustainable food packaging laws in Andover and Brookline.
On 7 November 2017, the city of Santa Cruz, California implemented a ban on all non-recyclable to-go containers, straws, and lids but allowed for 6 months for all businesses to come into compliance before enforcement would occur. On 1 January 2018, the city of Alameda, California citing the Santa Cruz effort, implemented an immediate ban on all straws, except if requested by a customer, and gave business until 1 July 2018 when it would be required that all straws to be of compostable paper and that all other to-go containers be recyclable.
A statewide California law restricting the providing of single-use plastic straws went into effect on 1 January 2019. Under the law, restaurants are only allowed to provide single-use plastic straws upon request. The law applies to sit-down restaurants but exempts fast-food restaurants, delis, coffee shops, and restaurants that do takeout only. The law does not apply to-go cups and takeaway drinks. A restaurant will receive warnings for its first two violations, then a $25 per day fine for each subsequent violation, up to a maximum of $300 in a year. In a statement released upon his signing the legislation into law, then-Governor Jerry Brown said "It is a very small step to make a customer who wants a plastic straw ask for it. And it might make them pause and think again about an alternative. But one thing is clear, we must find ways to reduce and eventually eliminate single-use plastic products."
After consideration of a ban in the UK, in 2018, after a two-month trial of paper straws at a number of outlets in the UK, McDonald's announced they would be switching to paper straws for all locations in the United Kingdom and Ireland. and testing the switch in U.S. locations in June 2018.
A month after the Vancouver ban passed (but before it took effect) Canada's second-largest fast food chain, A&W announced they would have plastic straws fully phased out by January 2019 in all of their locations.
Various independent restaurants have also stopped using plastic straws.
Hyatt Hotels announced straws would be provided by request only, starting 1 September 2018. Royal Caribbean plans to offer only paper straws on request by 2019, and IKEA said it would eliminate all single-use plastic items by 2020. Other conversions include Waitrose, London City Airport, and Burger King UK stores starting September 2018. A few other cruise lines, air lines, beverage companies, and hotels, have also made partial or complete reductions, but most companies in those industries have not, as of May 2018.
Opposition to bans
Since plastic straws account only for a tiny portion (0.022%) of plastic waste emitted in the oceans each year, some pro-environment critics have argued that plastic straw bans are insufficient to address the issue of plastic waste, and are mostly symbolic.
Full bans on single-use plastic straws have faced opposition from disability rights advocates, as they feel that alternative materials are not well-suited for use by those with impaired mobility (caused by conditions such as cerebral palsy and spinal muscular atrophy). Some with neuromuscular disabilities may rely on a plastic straw for its heat resistance and due to an inability to lift a cup. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has required public places to provide plastic straws in order to ensure that those who need them will be able to access them. In particular, not all people with disabilities may be capable of washing reusable straws, straws made from inflexible materials are not capable of being repositioned, paper straws lose their firmness over time when soaked in a beverage, and straws made from hard materials such as metal can cause injuries. Advocates have preferred laws that still allow plastic straws to be offered upon request.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — a U.S. conservative lobbying group against "excessive" regulation — has promoted model state bills which contain carve-outs for fast food and fast casual restaurants from straw bans (in effect only restricting "sit-down" restaurants), and restrict municipalities from preempting the rule with a stricter regulation (with the draft law text stating that the latter leads to "confusing and varying regulations that could lead to unnecessary increased costs for retail and food establishments to comply with such regulations"). In 2019, the re-election campaign of U.S., Republican Party president Donald Trump marketed packages of reusable plastic straws branded with Trump's name and colored in the signature red associated with the "Make America Great Again" slogan, as a fundraising stunt. The campaign website promoted them as an alternative to "liberal paper straws".
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- Wong, Alice (1 April 2019). "The Rise and Fall of the Plastic Straw: Sucking in Crip Defiance". Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience. 5 (1): 1–12. doi:10.28968/cftt.v5i1.30435. ISSN 2380-3312.
- Schwieterman, Gail (1 January 2020). "Water, water everywhere! Any to drink?". Conservation Physiology. 8 (1): coaa071. doi:10.1093/conphys/coaa071. ISSN 2051-1434. PMC 7428448. PMID 32821393.
- "'Disabled People Are Not Part of the Conversation.' Advocates Speak Out Against Plastic Straw Bans". Time. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
- Vigdor, Neil (11 July 2019). "Fatal Accident With Metal Straw Highlights a Risk". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
- "How business groups are fighting a wave of anti-plastic straw laws". NBC News. Retrieved 25 July 2019.
- Gabbatt, Adam (29 July 2019). "Trump re-election campaign raises $460,000 from selling plastic straws". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
- Breuninger, Kevin (19 July 2019). "Trump's campaign offered 10 plastic straws for $15 because 'liberal paper straws don't work' — and they just sold out". CNBC. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
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