Twenty years from now, my granddaughter will wander into my home office as a young adult, just for a look around. She won’t find much of interest on the desk or the cabinets (if we still need desks or cabinets twenty years from now), so she’ll direct her attention to the things on my shelves. Besides photos and books, she’ll find mementos from times and places past: greeting cards, concert programs, sports tickets, autographed items, and so on. She’ll also find items no longer necessary in her world, like a newspaper (from the day I was born), a paperweight (will anything be on paper anymore?), and a few music CD’s I can’t seem to part with. To this last group of items, perhaps I should add a drinking straw.
“Grandpa?”, she’ll say when she spies it, “What’s the narrow little tube with the colored stripes?” “Oh”, I’ll smile and say, “That’s a straw. People used them back in the old days to suck drinks out of their glasses.” She’ll ponder that for a bit and then ask, “Why wouldn’t they just drink straight from the glass like we do today?” Good question, granddaughter. Then I’d pull up a chair, and explain the tragic tale of the drinking straw – the humble roots as a durable replacement for rye grass; the evolution into kid-friendly varieties like bendy, Crazy, candy, and spoon-ended (for slush drinks); the proliferation into seemingly-essential varieties like miniature (cocktails), “extend-o” (juice boxes), extra-wide (bubble-tea), and trendy doubles-as-a-stirrer (Starbucks). Finally, I’d talk about the straw’s fade into obsolescence – the promoted shame over “one-time-use” products, the YouTube-sensationalized horrors of polypropylene impacts to the environment, and the headlines and bans and laws which would ultimately exterminate the little suckers.
Perhaps my granddaughter would pose another question: “Why the fuss over a little piece of plastic, when so much else in the world deserved equal-if-not-more attention?” Exactly. I asked myself the same question when I sat down to write this piece.
No matter where you stand on the drinking straw debate, it’s a great example of the power of social media to elevate a topic to a level of importance beyond what it might deserve. According to those in the know, straws account for a tiny portion of the plastic waste in landfills and oceans. But they have our attention, don’t they? As Plastic Pollution Coalition CEO Dianna Cohen puts it, “We look at straws as one of the gateway issues to help people start thinking about the global plastic pollution problem.” “Gateway issue” – I like that. The straw is simply the catalyst, easing people into an awareness of a much more significant problem.
As for the demise of drinking straws, we’ve moved from opinion to discussion to debate, and finally to laws and bans to discourage their use, yet we’ve hardly reached a resolution. An effective replacement for the plastic straw simply doesn’t exist. Paper straws durable enough to last the life of the drink don’t decompose much faster than plastic. Paper straws cost five times as much, so the restaurant industry will have to swallow hard. Reusable straws have their merits (ex. metal, glass), but unless restaurants budget them to the bottom line, we’re facing a massive change in behavior. You’re already leaving the house with your car keys and your phone, but hey, don’t forget that reusable straw.
More likely, straws will simply disappear altogether. As we speak, we’re in that awkward middle-ground where straws are still an option in restaurants, but more and more establishments (and entire states) mandate the customer must ask for one. From there, you can make the easy leap to guilt-by-association – as in, sure you can have a straw, but do you really want to be seen using one? The only resolution in my mind is to do without, like we do hot coffee, beer, and wine. Time to drink everything straight from the glass.
Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and articles from Business Insider, Eater, and Sprudge.