The World Is Suffering From A Plastic Hangover
Call me a mean old curmudgeonly boomer if you wish but I think if I read one more overwrought screed from one more hyperventilating millennial about the imminent demise of the plastic straw, I'm just going to flagellate myself with a plastic spoon until I lapse into blissful unconsciousness. Hear this, you coddled ninny-whiners who think all of recorded history began with your generation: we oldsters managed to live quite well without plastic straws – or plastic anything – decades before you were born, thank you very much. È vero! There was life before plastic!
The trendy among us are now touting the virtues of reusable stainless steel straws. They come in straight and angled varieties, often packaged together for your convenience. They are practically indestructible and are easy to clean and disinfect in your dishwasher and/or with the included little cleaning brush. And, of course, they are environmentally responsible. No sea turtle has had to have a metal straw removed from its nose yet.
My biggest question is where are all my contemporaries on this issue? Where are the folks like me who remember going down to the malt shop or the soda fountain and sipping our beverages through “old fashioned” paper straws? I don't recall even seeing a plastic straw until I was about ten years old. And yet I somehow managed to survive my childhood using plain old wax-coated paper straws.
Drinking straws have been around for thousands of years. The oldest known straw was found in a Sumerian tomb dating back to 3000 B.C.E. It was a gold tube inlaid with lapis lazuli. For ensuing centuries, people sucked up liquids through whatever hollow device was available to them. Actual pieces of dried straw worked for some folks, although such had an unfortunate tendency to fall apart when they got wet and also to make everything one drank through them taste kinda like.....straw.
And then along came a guy named Marvin C. Stone. Legend has it that he was sipping on a rye grass straw stuck into his favorite beverage – a mint julep – on a hot Washington, D.C. day in 1888 and was somewhat unsatisfied with the grassy taste thereof. So he set about doing something about it. Stone wrapped a piece of paper around a pencil, slid the pencil out of the resulting tube, and glued the overlapping edges together. History was made! Stone later refined his design by inventing a machine that would coat the paper straw with a light layer of wax to hold it together instead of glue. And that, my friends, was the state of the straw-making art for the next seventy years or so. Oh, there were occasional innovations: a Cleveland, Ohio-based inventor named Joseph B. Friedman came up with the idea of inserting a screw into a standard drinking straw and, using dental floss, forcing the paper into the screw threads, thus creating corrugations. After he removed the floss and the screw, the now articulated paper straw would conveniently bend over the edge of a glass. This paper “bendy straw” was patented in 1937, long before its plastic descendant was ever thought of.
As I said, paper straws – straight or bendy – were the only straws I ever knew as a child growing up in the '50s and '60s. And then the entire frickin' world turned to plastic.
Plastics had been around in some form for a long time. Beginning with natural bio-derived materials and progressing through chemically modified natural substances like vulcanized rubber, plastic-like products were known as early as around 1600 B.C.E. It wasn't until 1856 that a British inventor, Alexander Parkes, patented what is considered to be the first entirely man-made plastic. Development continued over the course of the next hundred years until the “plastic age” really took off in the booming post-World War II years. And once plastic started taking over, there was no stopping it.
Now, obviously the great advances we've seen in science, engineering, medicine and other important fields would not have been possible without plastics. But I think Dante would have reserved another level of hell for the people responsible for making plastic packaging for every blessed product known to man, especially whoever came up with the accursed so-called “blister pack.” Right along with them would be the folks who developed those little plastic rings that hold six-packs together – and that choke and fatally bind wildlife who become entangled in them. And the people who make all the “disposable” plastic and Styrofoam food packaging, cups, and bottles that litter our landscape and clog our oceans. Add in the manufacturers of the now ubiquitous plastic grocery bag, without which, it seems, everyday life would not be possible. And not to be left out, of course, are those who made plastic straws a modern-day “necessity.” Of all of these miscreants I would ask one simple question: “What was so wrong with paper?”
Part of the answer, at least as far as straws are concerned, would be durability. And here's where the monster begins to feed on itself. When I was a kid, beverages were served in glass; either drinking glasses or glass bottles. Some “ultra-modern” places used paper cups. All of these vessels were compatible with simple paper straws. But then plastic and Styrofoam cups hit the market and with them came plastic lids. Now, if you've ever tried to shove a paper straw through that sharp-edged little “X” cut in a plastic lid, you'll understand why something more durable was needed. Enter the plastic drinking straw, the perfect companion to the plastic cup and plastic lid. Not only was plastic more durable than paper, thanks to advances in technology, it was becoming cheaper to produce. And since “cheap” and “durable” were among the buzzwords of the '60s, plastic had nowhere to go but up. How far up? Try this figure on: 1.5 million tons of plastic were produced in 1950. By 2015, that figure had risen to 322 million tons. And after a giddy half-century-long plastic party, the world was beginning to suffer a plastic hangover.
My generation, the “baby boomer” generation, was the first to “benefit” from plastic. My parents and grandparents and all those who came before them somehow had to muddle through life with natural materials. We booomers were kind of the transitional generation. I had plastic toys when I was growing up, things my parents would never have dreamed of. But, like them, I also had a lot of stuff made of metal, wood, fabric, and paper or cardboard. By the time my kids came along in the early 1980s, there was nothing left that wasn't made of plastic. And it's that plastic mindset, that plastic dependency, that plastic addiction that causes today's generation to weep over the loss of their precious plastic straws. In typical fashion, they believe that because they've know nothing else, nothing else has ever existed.
But it did exist. I was one of an estimated seventy-six million Americans born during the “baby boom” years between 1946 and 1964. In total there were slightly fewer than two-hundred million people in this country when the “baby boom” ended and the “plastic boom” began, events that were fairly overlapping in nature, give or take ten years. And we all made do without plastic straws stuck into plastic cups through holes in plastic lids. All of us; kids and adults, young and old, healthy and infirm.
I am not completely without empathy for those with disabilities who claim they “need” plastic straws to maintain their quality of life. I read the impassioned plea of a young woman suffering from a condition that limits her ability to drink without the use of a straw. “I have used plastic straws my entire life because I cannot pick up a cup,” she writes. “Without straws, I am unable to drink anything independently. Straws may be a luxury for some people, but for me, they are a necessity. How will I drink if straws are no longer available?”
Wow. I don't remember anyone saying anything about completely banning straws, just plastic ones. But I still have to wonder what similarly disabled people did prior to, say, 1965 or so. In fact, some of the first customers for those paper “bendy straws” to which I alluded earlier were hospitals and medical facilities because bedridden patients found them so much easier to use than conventional straws.
And I hear a lot about paper straws not being practical because they allegedly get soggy after awhile. Some folks even cite this as a safety issue, claiming that people can choke on wet paper straws. All I can say is I lived with paper straws the first ten or fifteen years of my life and I don't recall that ever being a problem. I slurped many a soda through a paper straw and I simply can't remember ever having one get soggy or fall apart before I was finished drinking. Maybe my memory is faulty or maybe they just made better paper straws in those days, I don't know. But I do have a solution: don't leave your straw in your drink for too long. Conservative estimates from straw manufacturers indicate that a common paper straw submersed in liquid will hold up for about three or four hours. And you know, if it takes you more than four hours to finish your drink, you might just have to get another straw.
Look, I've been in the restaurant business. I know how this works. In fact, even as I write I'm consulting on a new venture set to open soon. And my advice to to the owner I'm working with is this: Buy a couple of boxes of plastic straws and keep 'em in the back in case somebody really “needs” one. Otherwise, paper is the default offering.
We can go back. Natural materials are still out there and we can still use them. We just have to want to. We just have to step away from worshiping the plastic god at the altar of cheap convenience. Yes, it's probably going to cost a little more at first until our technology can be sufficiently retooled, but it will be worth it in the long run. The savings to the planet will outweigh the cost to the consumer. It's just going to require a paradigm shift and perhaps that shift begins with eliminating plastic straws. Maybe plastic bags and bottles will be next and who knows where it will go from there?
Voluntary efforts from companies like McDonald’s, Starbucks, American Airlines, SeaWorld, Disney and dozens more are spearheading the movement to eliminate plastic straws. Bon Appétit Management, a food service company with a thousand U.S. locations, says it will phase out plastic straws and hospitality giants Marriott and Hyatt are ditching plastic straws as well. Even out on the high seas, Royal Caribbean plans to get rid of plastic straws aboard its fifty ships by the end of 2018. And where a spirit of volunteerism isn't enough, bans are being enacted. Seattle, for instance, has banned plastic straws. So have Malibu and Miami Beach.
Millennial moaning aside, the shift has begun and plastic straws are going away. Maybe if we're lucky they'll take some of the other “essential” plastic products with them; the things we find strewn along our highways and beaches and filling out landfills. Things that will be there for the next fifty to a thousand years as a testament to our shortsightedness back when we all let slick marketing encase our world in plastic.
Hey, maybe I can make a few bucks on this. I'd be willing to set up classes to teach members of the current generation how to drink from a paper straw. Maybe I could throw in lessons on how to wrap sandwiches in wax paper and how to carry stuff in paper or fabric bags. I might even turn them on to the virtues of drinking soda from glass bottles. I mean, everybody knows it tastes better that way, right? Any takers?