Features 2 minutes 08 October 2018

A Brief History of the Straw

Follow the journey of how man’s most loyal drinking companion for the last 700 years became 2018’s biggest villain.

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The straw as we know it today made its first appearance about 7,000 years ago. Tomb frescoes of the Sumer civilization—arguably one of the first civilizations of the world—depict social elites of the day drinking beer with long, hollow sticks. Subsequently, drinking tubes made of metal and precious stones have been discovered in the tombs. Miles away in ancient China, people in the Northern Wei Dynasty (300-500 AD) also used the hollow stalks of plants to make straws for drinking wine.

In the 16th century, South Americans began using a special straw, the bombilla, to drink yerba mate, a tea infusion that 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.
A bombilla used to strain yerba mate as you drink it.
A bombilla used to strain yerba mate as you drink it.

The Birth of Paper Straws

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. 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 American Marvin Stone.

Stone was born into a family that manufactured cylindrical objects like 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 favor in the 1960s as more took to its plastic counterpart as plastic straws didn’t tamper with the flavor 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.

Damage to the Environment

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 plastic straws every day. The large amount of plastic waste causes immense pressure on our ecosystem.

The Californian Coastal Commission points out that plastic straws were the sixth most common garbage item 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.
Last year, a sea turtle was discovered with a plastic straw stuck in its nostril. As its rescuer attempted to pull the straw out, the sea turtle bled and struggled violently while crying for help. The episode went viral online and was used as rallying cry for the anti-straw movement that has taken 2018 by storm. Environmental organizations like The Last Plastic Straw, Be Straw Free and Strawwars.org rode the wave of public consciousness and urged the world to reduce its use of plastic straws.

Greener Alternatives

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. Last month, California became the first state to ban plastic straws in restaurants. (Customers seeking straws must ask for them.)
Greener alternatives to single-use plastic straws have come to the fore.
Greener alternatives to single-use plastic straws have come to the fore.
As non-biodegradable plastic straws are being phased out, alternative options have risen to the fore. Among these are products like the bamboo straw made by Brush With Bamboo and Strawesome’s straws made of glass.

Major companies like WeWork have stocked offices nationwide with metal straws. These are affordable, chic and, most importantly, reusable options that reduce dependency on single-use plastics. Like California, Hyatt hotels are only offering plastic straws by request, and Hilton hotels has banned plastic straws in over 600 of their properties, offering paper straws in its place.

This article was written by Joe Chan and translated by Vincent Leung. Click here to read the original version of this story.


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