Boomers remember sipping all sorts of juices, milk, soft drinks and milkshakes through paper straws, but the invention of the paper straw goes back to the century before the Baby Boom. The story goes that one day, inventor Marvin Stone was sipping a mint julep through the type of straw that was used at the time — a stalk of rye grass. Stone saw that the plant-based material left residue and a gritty taste to whatever the person was drinking, so he thought about creating another method. He spiral-wrapped paper around a tube, glued it and received a patent for the first paper straw in 1888. Later, he improved on his design by switching to manila paper and coating it with paraffin wax. His invention quickly became the standard world wide. In 1937, the bendy straw, also made of paper, joined the regular straw and — other than a few innovations on glues, gluing production methods, and food-safe inks for printing on them — remained relatively unchanged when baby boomers took their first sips through straws.
Yet after 80 years, all was not settled in the straw industry. Like the character in The Graduate said to Dustin Hoffman, the world was moving toward “plastics.” The first plastic straws began to appear when Krazy Straws were introduced in 1960. These plastic straws were invented when some glass-blowing students bent glass tubing into twisty shapes, and began drinking from them in their studio.
Young boomers latched on to the novelty of these twisted tubes of colorful plastic, though many reused them again and again thanks to moms who washed them after each use, but the plastics cat was out of the bag. Plastic straws were cheaper to make and therefore cheaper for the rising fast food industry. One by one, soda fountains replaced their bendy and paper straws with plastic, and by the mid-70s, plastic had replaced the paper straw as king of the hill.
While this revolution in single-use, disposable plastic straws was rising, Rachel Carson’s eye-opening book on environmental hazards, Silent Spring, appeared in 1962, sparking the environmental movement. As the sixties rolled on, people in both cities and rural areas complained to government agencies about the obvious pollution of their air, water and soil that was happening at the hands of industrial plants coast to coast. For the first time, large fines were issued to offending companies, but the public wanted more. In response, Congress passed the Environmental Policy Act of 1969. By 1970, President Richard Nixon said, “A major goal for the next ten years for this country must be to restore the cleanliness of the air, the water, the broader problem of population congestion, transport and the like.” Nixon (believe it or not) became instrumental in getting Congress to create the first Environmental Protection Agency as a Cabinet post in order to coordinate and enforce the growing list of national environmental policies. The agency has become a political football ever since.
Despite the progress that has been made in air and water quality since the first steps toward environmental regulation were taken in 1970, plastics — and plastic straws — have escaped notice and criticism. Today America alone disposes of 500 million plastic straws per day. As a result of the worldwide use of plastic straws, scientists are seeing them turn up in the autopsies of dead marine animals and birds, and millions are washing up on the shores of countries around the world. In fact, plastic straws are among the top 10 things that wash ashore on beaches. The drinking straw market is a $3 billion global industry annually.
Currently, many cities and countries around the world are sounding the alarm and are taking steps to outlaw the use of plastic straws. According to CNN, studies are indicating that by 2050, there will be more plastic, by weight, in the world’s oceans, than fish. The European Union is proposing a ban by member states by 2030. Great Britain is investigating a total ban on single-use plastic straws, and Glasgow, Scotland has already issued such a ban. McDonald’s has announced they will stop their use in restaurants in the UK. Many other restaurant chains in the UK have already eliminated their use. Norway, Australia and New Zealand are also discussing a ban. Taiwan is banning all single-use plastic items by 2019, including straws, coffee stirrers and cups, with shopping bags joining the ban by 2030.
In the U.S., several cities — including Miami Beach, Seattle, Asbury Park and Malibu — have banned or plan to ban their use, and many businesses have voluntarily hopped on the “banned” wagon. In New York City, a Give A Sip campaign is recruiting the voluntary help of businesses with early success. This past week, the upscale burger chain, Shake Shack, agreed to stop distributing plastic straws in all their stores nationwide.
Mister Boomer recalls how boomers used paper straws daily, often sucking hard enough while sipping a milkshake to collapse them. Some boomers chewed on the ends, making mush of the paper. Nonetheless, paper straws ruled the day. In fact, paper straws were such an entrenched institution to baby boomers that Pixy Stix came about in 1952. Originally, the sugary-powder-filled paper straws were intended to make a drink similar to Kool-Aid. Once the company discovered that kids were eating the sugar directly from the straw, a national sugar rush was underway.
Mister Boomer recently spoke with a 10 year old girl to ask her if she has heard of the effort to raise awareness about single-use plastic straws. Not only did she say her school had discussed the issue, she said there was a boy in her class who brought his own metal straw to school every day.
Mister Boomer, being raised in an industrial city, saw pollution first-hand. He has written before about how his mother had to shake off the soot from the freshly washed bed sheets after they dried on the outside clothesline. He recalls one day heading to a nearby beach, only to be faced with a fence blocking entry to the lake. A sign said the lake would be closed until further notice due to pollution. This made him an early tree-hugger in his day. He is forever fascinated that many “cheaper, more convenient” items that became ubiquitous during and after the Baby Boom, such as plastic straws, plastic coffee stirrers, plastic shopping bags and plastic produce bags, did not exist in the 1950s and early ’60s. The funny thing is, we got along just fine without them.
Technology today has given us better food-safe glues and stronger papers for our next-generation paper straws. What’s more, they have been invented to naturally degrade over time. These paper straws are making their way to stores and food establishments now. It’s frightening to think that the very first plastic straws we used fifty years ago, boomers, are still out there, sitting in landfills and possibly washing up on beaches thousands of miles away. So why would anyone think we couldn’t return to paper straws and avoid hundreds of millions of these items littering our landscapes and ultimately endangering sea life around the world? Why should we be willing to accept this fact just so we can enjoy sloshing through our fast food soft drink, only to discard the straw when that familiar sucking noise tells us the cup is empty?
Mister Boomer urges you to take a personal stand now; this is not a political statement, this is a human statement on behalf of our one shared planet. When you are out in restaurants and bars, ask if the establishment offers biodegradable straws. If they do not, refuse to use plastic. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young once sang, We can change the world/Rearrange the world/It’s dying to get better. Now is the time for all good boomers to — once again — come to aid of their planet.
Do you remember the days before plastic straws, boomers?