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  • Purva Sharma

Are plastic straws finally on the way out?

The majority leader of the California State Assembly has proposed a bill (AB-1884) that serves up to 6 months of jail time to restaurant workers for giving out plastic straws unless one is requested by a patron. While the severity of the bill is debatable, it does reflect the strong popular opinion against plastic straws.

Popular opinion can be a powerful force in deciding consumer trends and several think-tanks, media outlets and civil societies have started being more vocal online and offline. For example, the Evening Standard of London too joined a chorus of voices in the UK against the use of plastic straws in London restaurants, with the launch of its The Last Straw campaign. The Sunday Mail in Scotland launched a similar campaign and the Scottish parliament went ahead and banned the use of plastic straws altogether. While most such campaigns or laws are local in nature, the pervasive use of small plastic goods (including plastic straws, tokens, packaging, etc.) presents a worldwide ecological threat. But before we talk about alternatives, let's look at how we arrived at the status quo.

Human civilization has used straws for well over 4000 years, starting with the Sumerians who used metal tubes (including gold) for drinking beer. Metal remained the most preferred material for making straws for centuries thereafter - eventually spreading to Egypt, Eurasia and even to South America where the natives modified the straw to make "bombillas" with sieves for filtering and drinking mate tea. In smaller pockets in Asia, bamboo straws came into fashion over the years.

Metal however was relatively expensive for use in straws - and bamboo was not always easily procured outside of Asia. Hence, by the 1800's, people started exploring cheaper alternatives for constructing drinking straws. Rye grass stems and reeds (including bamboo) were explored by manufacturers in different markets - with rye grass stems enjoying considerable popularity. However, a common problem with using reed/grass stems was the reduced durability when the straws were immersed in liquids (especially in sparkling beverages). The straws would frequently fray or turn to mush.

In 1887, a man named Marvin Stone came up with an easy solution - paper straws. Marvin took a sheet of paper, rolled it into a thin tube and glued the edges to form what would be the precursor to the modern straw. Stone instantly knew his solution was revolutionary - he applied for a patent soon after - and received his first U.S. Patent 375962 on January 3, 1888. He continued to perfect the invention - for example, applying a thin layer of paraffin wax to the paper to increase the durability and avoid dissolution in alcoholic drinks. In just two years, i.e. by 1890, the Stone Straw Corporation was producing more drinking straws than cigarette holders.

The easy availability and reduced cost of paper spurred an exponential growth of straws in the market and for 20 years, Stone remained the be-all end-all of drinking straws - though there were a few important improvements from various other quarters. In 1905, for example, William Henry Dewender devised a beverage bottle with an integrated straw - which earned him U.S. Patent 806528 on December 5, 1905.

In 1916, George H Williams devised a drinking straw with a filtering gauze to prevent sand, dirt and other foreign substances being drawn into the mouth. His invention was particularly useful for military personnel (the World War I was raging on at the time) who frequently had to rely on shallow springs and streams for drinking water. Williams received U.S. Patent 1236029 on 7 Aug 1917 for his invention.

In 1920, Hugo Pick of the Albert Pick Company devised a straw with clearly marked drinking portion - so that appropriate care can be taken while handling the straw in restaurants (as disclosed in U.S. Patent 1466185).

In 1931, Maurice Hollingsworth disclosed the first flavored straws - applying a dry coating of flavoring on the inner walls of a paper straw - in his U.S. Patent 1996203 granted on April 2, 1935. Flavored straws were a major success with numerous other companies modifying and/or improving the product over the next several decades.

The next big innovation to drinking instruments came in 1936, when a man named Joseph Friedman came up with a "bendy" straw - a design now ubiquitous in restaurants worldwide and patented it in his U.S. Patent 2094268. Joseph's design was a tremendous success - and he went on to improve and monetize his straws over the next several years. In 1939, Friedman founded Flex-Straw Company. By the 1940s, he was manufacturing flex-straws for hospitals which used glass and/or metal tubes - the flex-straw was much easier for patients to use while lying down - and soon after, for the hospitality industry.

Yet, every new straw patented since 1887 up until at least 1933 was constructed using paper and/or paper coated with wax to increase durability. Though plastic had been invented in mid-1800s, mass production of plastic goods only really started in the late 1930s and 1940s. It was only natural that inventors saw plastic as the most viable material for drinking straws. Theodore M Prudden, for example, disclosed one of the earliest plastic straws in his U.S. Patent 2036773.

Joseph Friedman himself also took notice of plastic as a more viable material - and filed what was later granted on May 1, 1951, as U.S. Patent 2550797, introducing the first plastic bendy straw that consumers have used across the world for more than 65 years. Plastic quickly replaced paper, grass and metal in drinking straws almost entirely over the next decade and virtually all innovation that came next focused on how to mold new shapes using plastic. Several new "crazy" straws were subsequently designed by inventors over the next 5 decades, achieving varying levels of popularity over time - but the basic bendy straw Friedman invented has remained by far the most iconic straw through the ages.

Yet, no matter what shapes they come in, plastic straws are undeniably bad for the environment. They are ubiquitous yet tiny enough to make collection and recycling logistically impractical - and too frequently make their way to landfills or the oceans where they get ingested by birds, animals and fish with fatal consequences.

While plastic no doubt is the most economical material for the straw, there are several "responsible" alternatives such as bamboo, paper and metal - ironically, the very materials that plastic replaced in the 1940s. Hopefully, the next wave of innovation in drinking instruments will also focus on reducing the costs of these materials, in addition to devising new materials. Realistically, while reducing the costs to match those of plastic may indeed be too ambitious, if not impossible, perhaps future innovation combined with strong popular opinion and a general sense of corporate responsibility will tip the balance against plastic straws once and for all.

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