A drinking straw or drinking tube is a small pipe that allows its user to more conveniently consume a beverage. A thin tube of paper, bamboo, stainless steel, or plastic (such as polypropylene and polystyrene), or other material is used by placing one end in the mouth and the other in the beverage. A combination of muscular action of the tongue and cheeks reduces air pressure in the mouth and above the liquid in the straw, whereupon atmospheric pressure forces the beverage through the straw. Drinking straws can be straight or have an angle-adjustable bellows segment. Drinking straws are usually intended as a single-use product and several countries, regions and municipalities have banned plastic straws to reduce plastic pollution. Some companies have 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 wouldn't dissolve in bourbon.
Early paper straws had a narrow bore similar to that of the grass stems then in common use. It was common to use two of them, to reduce the effort needed to take each sip. (The cocktail straw, which is sometimes used in pairs, may be derived from such early straws.)
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.
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 were 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's 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.
Different types of straws have been designed for specific beverages and use cases. A form commonly known as a "bendy straw" (known in the industry as an "articulated straw") has a concertina-type hinge near the top for convenience. This variation was invented by Joseph Friedman in 1937. A "spoon straw" has a spoon-like tip at the bottom, and are often used with iced slush beverages. Straws with wider openings are commonly used to drink bubble tea, accommodating its characteristic tapioca pearls. The tip of these straws are sometimes cut at an angle creating a point. This allows the straw to puncture the plastic cover of the cup.
Some straws (usually marketed as "crazy" straws) are made of a hard transparent or translucent plastic and have a number of twists and turns at the top, which can be entertaining to children. The crazy straw was invented by Arthur Philip Gildersleeve and patented in 1936.
Drinking straws may be manufactured from a variety of materials (some better-suited for reusability), ranging from plastics such as Polypropylene (which were deemed to be more dense and durable than Polystyrene straws), Polylactic acid (PLA), and silicone (which has been promoted as a newer material option for reusable straws, citing invulnerability to cracking or peeling, insulation for hot and cold drinks, and one manufacturer promoting that theirs could be disposed of by burning them into biodegradable ash), to paper or cardboard, metal, bamboo wood and bagasse, and edible materials including rice, seaweed, rye, and confectionaries (such as candy).
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. Microplastics pollution are 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.
Plastic drinking straw production contributes a small amount to petroleum consumption, and the used straws become a small part of global plastic pollution when discarded, most after a single use. 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.
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 bended, 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 68% fewer fossil fuel resources to produce than plastic, but require very specific conditions to break down fully.
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 biologist Nathan J. Robinson removing a plastic straw from a sea turtle's nostril.
In 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.
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
Plastic straws account only for a tiny portion (0.022%) of plastic waste emitted in the oceans each year. As such, 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). 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; in 2019, an English woman with a disability was killed after her face was impaled by a metal straw during a fall. 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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