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The Last (Plastic) Straw

When the world’s population works together, massive goals can be achieved.

That’s what happened in the case of the Montreal Protocol.

In the mid-1980s, it was discovered that certain synthesised chemicals, particularly chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), were causing a depletion in the ozone (O3) content of the Earth’s stratosphere, posing a danger to all life on Earth. This environmental crisis brought about global efforts to limit, and, as far as possible, reverse, the environmental damage caused by humans. In September 1987, almost 200 members of the United Nations ratified the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Over the last 30 years, there’s been a steady repair of the damaged ozone layer.

And that’s what the 2015 Paris Agreement is all about.

Once again, United Nations members committed to a huge environmental goal: to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by the year 2050.

Greenhouse gases are essential for supporting life on Earth. Carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapour (H2O), nitrous oxide (N2O), and methane (CH4) are all naturally occurring gases that absorb and release energy from the sun, keeping the planet at a suitable temperature for living organisms. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, in the mid-1700s, humans have been emitting an overload of greenhouse gases, and the long-standing status quo has been rocked.

Manufacturing synthetic polymers – whether from petroleum or biological sources – takes a lot of energy and creates a lot of CO2 emissions. Managing waste plastic takes another lot of energy and creates more CO2 emissions. But beyond the manufacture and disposal of plastic, there’s another problem: plastic itself.

Plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose, and in that time, it breaks down into microplastics that can be harmful to wildlife. Microplastics have made their way into the food chain, and scientists estimate that we – and all other animals – ingest microplastics with everything we eat. From microscopic polymers small enough to pass through cell walls, to large, recently abandoned plastic items that entangle or choke animals, synthesised materials are causing long-term damage to the world’s ecosystems.

This Plastic-Free July, we’ve been looking at examples of single-use plastic – including chewing gum, teabags, carrier bags, cling film, and the Refill app.

In this article, we’re looking at plastic drinking straws.

History of the straw

Ancient civilisations used drinking straws. In one Sumerian tomb, a golden, bejewelled straw was discovered. It’s estimated to be around 5,000 years old.

Hollow grasses were customarily used for drinking straws – hence the word “straw” – until the late 1800s …

2 early patents for drinking straws

On Tuesday, 24 May 1870, American inventor Eugene Chapin of Missouri was granted the patent (US103300A) for his Drinking Tube for Invalids.

On Tuesday, 22 April 1879, another American, William Brown, from Connecticut, patented his Utensil for Mixing and Imbibing Liquids.

From patent application US214617A:

The invention consists in a [metal] utensil composed of a hollow body, provided with perforations for the entrance of liquid, and a tubular stem through which liquid may be drawn. The hollow body is preferably concave upon one of its sides, to enable it to be conveniently used as a mixer or stirrer, and convex upon the opposite side, to adapt it for use in crushing various solid ingredients.

Marvin Stone and his Artificial Straw

Tuesday, 3 January 1888, American inventor Marvin Stone of Columbia was granted a patent for his Artificial Straw, which he invented because he was fed up with the grassy flavour that natural ryegrass straws gave to his drinks. Mr Stone’s artificial straw had already been patented in England on 8 July the year before.

From patent application US375962A:

The aim of my invention is to provide a cheap, durable, and unobjectionable substitute for the natural straws commonly used for the administration of medicines, beverages, &c; and to this end it consists, essentially, in a straw formed by winding a paper strip into tubular form and securing the final or outer edge by an adhesive material, the whole being coated with paraffine or other waterproof material.

On Tuesday, 22 June 1897, Stone was granted another patent (US585058A) – this time, for his Artificial Double Straw.

Marvin Stone established the Stone Straw Company, which is still operating in Ontario, Canada, making biodegradable paper straws.

Joseph Friedman and his bendy straw

When Joseph Friedman saw his little girl, Judith, struggling to drink through a straight straw, he was inspired to invent the Drinking Tube. This first bendy straw was created by inserting a screw into a paper straw and winding dental floss around the straw, following the thread of the screw.

From patent application US2094268A:

… With a flexible section so positioned that the tube may be bent during use without substantially reducing the diameter of the straw … [the] mouthpiece end of the straw may then be angularly directed to enter the mouth readily without the customer assuming an awkward position.

Mr Friedman was granted the patent for his bendy straw on 28 September 1937 and he founded the Flex-Straw Company in 1939.

And yes, 28 September 1937 was a Tuesday!

An end to 70 years of plastic straws

By the 1960s, plastic straws – made from polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride, or polyethylene – were the norm. The infrastructure was in place to mass-produce plastic straws, to the point where they were cheaper to make than paper ones. Paper straws were now undesirable and, quite frankly, passé. (Do you remember, as a child, your disappointment when you were given a paper straw?)

Scientists and environmentalists all over the world have been working hard to bring attention to the horrific facts of plastic pollution. For example, it’s estimated that between 400,000,000 and 8,000,000,000 plastic straws are polluting the world’s oceans. Evocative photographs of wild animals, injured by discarded plastics, have played a significant role in persuading people to rethink the way we use plastic.

Earlier this year, in England, a ban on single-use plastic straws, cotton buds, and drink stirrers came into effect. Guidance was published by the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in September 2020.

In the residences of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, who has been inspired by the much-admired British Environmentalist, David Attenborough, drinking straws and other single-use plastics have been banned since 2018.

Alternative materials for drinking straws

Okay, so single-use plastic straws are off the menu. What can we use instead?

Silicone straws

Silicone is a plastic that can be used and washed repeatedly, has no taste of its own, and doesn’t support microbiological growth. Soft on the mouth and highly flexible, silicone drinking straws are particularly suitable for children, and their durability means that they’re ideal for carrying around. Silicone straws are dishwasher safe and can be sterilised in boiling water. Packs of straws usually include a cleaning brush.

At the end of their useful life, silicone straws can be recycled.

Stainless steel

The chromium content of stainless steel prevents rusting and protects against corrosion. Stainless steel straws are easily cleaned and, like silicone straws, can be sterilised in boiling water. Because stainless steel straws are inflexible, they’re available with angled heads. You’ll find packs that include a mixture of straight and angled straws. In most packs, a cleaning brush is included.

Stainless steel is infinitely recyclable.

Bamboo straws

Bamboo is an extremely fast-growing grass and one of the world’s most sustainable crops. The sustainability of bamboo is lessened, however, when the material is shipped long distances from its source – to the UK, for example. As with silicone and stainless-steel straws, packs of bamboo drinking straws often include a cleaning brush.

The best thing about bamboo drinking straws is their total biodegradability.

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