In the 16th century, South Americans began using a special straw, the bombilla, to drink yerba mate, a tea infusion which contained so many shreds of leaves and stalks that they devised a tube of silver or bronze with a filter at the end to strain the solids. The bombilla is still widely used today.
Mass-produced straws did not come to prominence until the 1800s when the rye straw was invented. The grass was bleached and cut before further rinsing and binding and then sold for drinking with. The rye straw, with its tendency to disintegrate quickly and leave a residue in the drink, quickly fell out of fashion and was replaced by the paper straw, invented by an American named Marvin Stone.
Stone was born into a family that manufactured cylindrical objects such as cigarette rollers and pen holders. Discontent with using rye straws, he began to roll paper into a tube along the surface of a pencil, fixing the ends with glue and finally removing the pencil to create the paper straw. He later got a patent for the design. The paper straw took America by storm, with daily production reaching two million at its peak.
The Reign Of The Plastic Straw
The paper straw gradually lost favour in the 1960s as more took to its plastic counterpart. Plastic straws didn’t tamper with the flavour of drinks and didn’t dissolve in liquids. Moreover, it could be mass produced at very low costs. Its rise also coincided with another development — as refrigerators became more commonplace, so did chilled beverages best enjoyed when sipped from a straw.
Half a century of straw sipping later, a serious problem began to emerge. The problem with straws is one of sheer volume: Americans alone use an estimated half a billion of plastic straws every day. The large amount of plastic waste causes immense pressure to our ecosystem.
The Californian Coastal Commission points out that plastic straws were the sixth most common garbage found in local beaches between 1988 and 2016. Since plastic isn’t biodegradable, its final destination is often the landfill, or even worse, the ocean, where it does irreparable damage to nature.
Straw activists have also taken to appealing directly to the food and beverage industry. More and more restaurants and dining groups have participated in the No Straw Campaign over the last few years. In Singapore, the Koufu foodcourt at Singapore Management University stopped using plastic straws and introduced biodegradable takeaway packaging. In June, six hotels in Singapore, including Orchard Hotel and Copthorne King’s Hotel, pledged to eliminate all single-use plastics over the next one year. This was followed by KFC which stopped offering plastic straws to customers in all its outlets across Singapore.
In Singapore, online stores selling metal and bamboo straws have also surfaced, such as Seastainable Co and The Sustainability Project. Zero-waste grocery store UnPackt has started stocking metal, glass and even rubber straws in all shapes and sizes — straight, bendy and even extra-wide for bubble tea. These are affordable, chic and, most importantly, reusable options that reduce dependency on single-use plastics.