Washington summers are brutal, a fact all the more true in the days before air conditioning.
Marvin Chester Stone, a manufacturer of paper cigarette holders, sought to beat the heat with a mint julep. He drank it through a stalk of rye grass, which was the fashionable way to imbibe in the 1880s. He disliked the taste of the grass, though, and he didn�t like the grit the straw left in his cocktail, according to the Smithsonian Institution�s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.
Dissatisfied, Stone, with his eye on a better mousetrap, wrapped strips of paper around a pencil, glued them into place and removed the pencil, leaving a skinny paper tube.
The modern drinking straw was born.
Although Stone had solved the taste issue � he also engineered the diameter small enough to keep fruit pits out � the paper straw he conceived proved to be as susceptible to a loss of structural integrity as rye grass. So the inveterate tinkerer tried manila paper coated with paraffin to prevent his drinking device from becoming soggy. It worked. The federal government issued him a patent in 1888. Straws soon outsold his cigarette holders, and he made a fortune.
Forty years went by. The Gilded Age came and went.
On the other side of the country, in San Francisco, a man named Joseph Friedman noticed his daughter was having a hard time drinking her milkshake through a straight straw � a tableau easily imagined by any parent. His solution: Insert a metal screw into the straw, wrap it tightly with dental floss, then remove the screw. This created the first flexible drinking straw, which Friedman patented in 1937.
And that might well have been that. At least until Dustin Hoffman�s iconic scene in The Graduate, when his character is told of the great future in… plastics. Paper straws soon died out, and, by the 1970s, the plastic straw was ubiquitous. Today, it�s a $3 billion industry.
But ubiquity has its downsides.
Americans use roughly 500 million drinking straws every day, which adds up to an astonishing 182.5 billion units per year. At 0.4 grams each, that�s more than 8,000 tons of straws. That much weight would fill a line of semi trucks arranged bumper to bumper for 3.6 miles �� nearly 270 big rigs. (That arithmetic has two flaws: It excludes packaging, and it presumes a standard 53-foot semi trailer is large enough to hold that many tons of straws, which it isn�t.)
In any case, laid end to end, a year�s worth of U.S. straw consumption, at 8.5 inches apiece, would stretch 24.5 million miles. Every eight years, Americans use enough straws to reach the sun and back.
Straws are made of a type of plastic called polypropene, which is easily recyclable. The problem, though, is that straws, and plastic bottle caps, are too small for the heavy-duty machines that sort recyclable plastic.
They have to go somewhere.
A movement emerges
In August 2015, a video of marine biologists removing a drinking straw from the nostril of a turtle went viral. All of the sudden, a heretofore innocuous object became anathema. The straw-pocalypse had begun, and it rode a pale horse.
The French were the first to surrender. Paris reworked a number of plastic-related policies beginning in August 2016, first eliminating plates and cups and then tackling straws. Two years later, Queen Elizabeth II banned straws on royal estates. Last May, Vancouver, British Columbia, banned single-use straws; Alaska Airlines followed suit. Seattle became the first U.S. city to ban straws, in July 2018, and native son Starbucks said it would phase out plastic straws and stirrers from its coffeehouses. In January, California enacted a law that said consumers had to ask for a plastic straw � restaurants couldn�t just hand them out. Sen. Kamala Harris, a Golden State Democrat, said she would enact a federal ban on plastic drinking straws if she were elected president.
What can be done? Environmentalism, meet capitalism: The variety of available options beggars the imagination.
Pasta straws are one alternative that�s gaining ground. The raw pasta doesn�t have much flavor, and the straws stay firm through an entire meal. The upside is they�re 100 percent biodegradable; the downside is they�re spendy: A garden-variety individually wrapped clear-plastic straw from a restaurant-supply house costs less than a third of a cent per unit. Amazon sells a dozen pasta straws for $7.99 or 66.5 cents each, which makes them 22,858.6 percent more expensive (as well as being loaded with carbs).
Another disposable option: Retro paper straws. They�re cheaper. Webstaurant.com lists them at about $50 per 3,200, or 1.6 cents each, about five times more than their plastic cousins. Reusable options include bamboo ($8 for a dozen at Amazon) or even stainless steel, which command about a dollar apiece and usually include a wee brush to keep them clean.
To be sure, not everyone agrees that straws are a problem.
As it turns out, not much plastic is really recycled: Nearly 80 percent of all plastic winds up in U.S. landfills. About 12 percent is incinerated. Only the remaining 9 percent or so is recycled, according to a 2017 report in Science Advances.
Some disagree a bit more vociferously.
�Virtue-signaling lefties rejoice in what they consider to be �planet-saving� bans on useful items that children and disabled people need daily,� Ellie Bukin wrote for The Federalist. She says the United States contributes less than 1 percent of the world�s plastic ocean pollution each year. She pointed to a study in the journal Science that found 275 million metric tons of plastic was dumped into the ocean worldwide by people living 30 miles or less away from a shore. Of that, the United States contributed less than 1 percent. China and Indonesia were the biggest contributors by an enormous margin.
What�s more, she wrote, �plastic straws account for less than 1 percent of the less than 1 percent the United States dumps into the ocean.
That doesn�t do nothing, she asserts. If people feel that their behavior with regard to straws is virtuous, they may believe that affords them moral license to contribute to other, more serious forms of pollution.
On the home front
Whether you blame the French or the Californians, the straw issue definitely has invaded North Idaho.
Elizabeth Crowell, at Coeur d�Alene Coffee, offers a type of all-natural organic cardboard straws, though they keep plastic ones on hand just in case. �For the most part, everyone loves them,� she said. �They�re very popular; we�re always trying to keep them in stock.� She conceded they were a little more expensive. �It�s important because we want to stay with the times and do our part, help the community, be as sustainable as possible. We also offer house mugs instead of paper cups. But we�re doing every little thing to be as sustainable as possible.�
Giving customers a choice � particularly in a tourist destination � is key, as people who travel here from other parts of the country might have certain expectations or habits. Danielle Reagan of The Vault in Coeur d�Alene said she�s been using paper straws for at least the past two years. �We offer them as an alternative,� she said. �We feel that people prefer the plastic straws, but we have a sign offering paper straws, and we keep them behind the counter.�
The problem with paper straws is that customers need to drink their drinks quickly or the straw gets as soggy as the rye grass Stone used in the 19th century. �But more and more, people are asking for the paper straws, or they will bring a personal straw or a metal straw,� Reagan said. Her store also offers customers strawless lids.
Akira Nelson with Kokopelli in Post Falls thought that was the best solution. Earlier this year, Kokopelli switched over to the same sort of sippy lids. �That�s our new standard,� she said. �Our boss said we save about 1,000 straws a month.� She still gives customers plastic straws � if they ask. She said paper straws weren�t a great choice because they get soggy so quickly. �We think a lot of our customers wouldn�t enjoy that.�
Fred Jones of Doma in Post Falls thinks he�s hit on the perfect compromise: �We�ve been using biodegradable straws � not paper or cardboard � for at least the past three years: It�s 100 percent biodegradable.� The compostable tubes are made of a corn-based product. Jones pointed out that the straws don�t decompose at the same rate as a piece of fruit � it takes about 25 years.
�We want to make sure we�re doing our part to be a more sustainable community and reduce our footprint,� he said.