Data provided by leading plastic straw distributors suggest that more than 500 million plastic straws are used daily in the United States. Most plastic straws are used by the fast food industry and, in fact, it is estimated that McDonalds alone uses at least 60 million plastic straws daily (worldwide). Furthermore, plastic straws have become an integral, but not essential, part of the coffee and drinking culture in America.
Based on these facts, it is not surprising that data collected by the Ocean Conservancy during the Annual International Beach Cleanup Day found that plastic straws are one of the top 10 items picked up at beach cleanups worldwide.
The basic principle of the drinking straw dates back to the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia (a region that included now modern-day Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran) between 3000 – 5000 BC. Straws at this time were made of natural materials, like hollow stems of grass, and used to drink beer. The straw has also been prominent in South American countries since at least the 16th century when mate was discovered.
The modern day drinking straw was invented on January 3, 1888 by the American businessman Marvin Chester Stone, the owner of a factory that packaged cigarettes. Stone’s original drinking straw was paper and 8.5-inches long with a diameter just wide enough to prevent lemon seeds from being lodged in the straw. Stone’s cigarette factory began producing paper straws in 1906 when the paper straw machine was invented.
The flexible paper straw, a slight but important modification that increased popularity, was invented by American Joseph B. Friedman in 1938. Friedman first invented the flexible straw concept while watching his daughter attempt to drink a soda with a non-flexible straw in a San Francisco candy shop. The flexible straw was first marketed to hospitals and in high demand by 1947.
Paper straws were replaced with plastic in the 1960s when plastic became the cheapest and most durable material on the market. McDonalds led this effort by developing a new extra wide plastic drinking straw that quickly became a well-known luxury. Plastic straws were strong, reliable, never soggy and hip. The concept took off quickly and now plastic straws are available at prices that are not comparable to many of the alternatives.
Efforts are underway to reduce plastic straw consumption on international, national and local levels. A team of Vietnam pop stars, including My Tam, Doan Trang, Ha Okio, Pi Band, Phan Anh, and Nguyen Khang, along with Tung Leo (MCs) and My Linh (TV host) have collaborated with 350.org in a Strawless Campaign to encourage the public to reduce and eliminate plastic straws from their lives.
A 9-year old New England boy started a straw-free campaign in his hometown elementary school that has gained national recognition and lead to the establishment of the Be Straw Free Organization. Be Straw Free promotes alternatives to plastic straws and encourages people to go strawless.
SF Surfrider volunteers have started an underground straw-free movement that encourages restaurant-goers, bar hoppers and coffee drinkers to ask for “no straw, please.” Some local progressive bars and coffee shops are ahead of the movement and already serving paper straws or compostable straws. The plan is to promote plastic strawfree establishments and get others onboard. We hate plastic straws here in San Francisco.
Stay tuned for Part Two: Economics and Straw Alternatives…