Straws have had quite a moment in the spotlight recently. If you’ve been keeping up with current events, you’ve probably seen an article or two about various states enacting bans on plastic straws, “straws on request” initiatives to lessen the number of straws given out at restaurants, and even ads for the new accessory of the year—reusable straws.
How did this obsession begin, and how is it impacting our world?
The story begins as most good stories do, with an alcoholic beverage. Although straws have a history dating back long before 1888, that was the year the first patent was filed. It so happened that an inventor named Marvin Stone was sipping his mint julep on a hot summer day when his piece of ryegrass—the commonly used drinking tube of the time—started to disintegrate. Stone was annoyed, and promptly decided he could make something better. He wrapped strips of paper around a pencil (later experimenting with paraffin coated manila paper), glued them together, and the paper straw was born. He patented the design, and by 1890 his paper cigarette holder manufacturing company was mass-producing paper straws.
Bendability was the next step in straw evolution. Somewhere in the 1930s, inventor Joseph Friedman was watching his daughter struggle to drink a milkshake through a straight straw. With his ingenuity, he came up with a simple, yet effective, solution to the problem. He inserted a screw into the straw, wrapped floss around the two, and voila! The grooves in the screw left indentations in the straw, giving it the flexibility to bend without breaking.
As for the material, paper ruled the straw market until the early 1960s. But, improvements needed to be made. Paper degraded with time, and some added an unpleasant flavor to beverages. Enter the reign of the plastic straw—plastic solved both of these issues. Plastic was also efficiently produced, and with its increased durability, it became a widespread decision to do away with paper. And so, paper straws became all but extinct by the mid-seventies, paving the way for plastic straws to become one of the many single-use products being produced. As the popularity of to-go cups rose, the fact that plastic straws didn’t tear or rip when pushed through plastic lids was just another reason to jump on the bandwagon. Over the past few years, paper straws, among other alternative materials, are making a significant comeback. You can find straws made from hay, bamboo, metal, glass, and more! The reusable straw has become quite popular and even touted by some as “. . . a gateway purchase that can start people on their journey to sustainability.”
Just like fashion trends, material trends seem to go through a circular life cycle—they come back around at some point (speaking of fashion, look around and you might think you’re back in the 90s thanks to “what the kids are wearing”). This is important to keep in mind when testing and trying out new materials. Sometimes, it’s beneficial to revisit materials previously used for products, just like the movement surrounding straws. With advancements in technology, those products might be even better than before!
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