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The Last Straw!

by H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

Recently, I’ve wondered about our seeming national obsession with hand-sanitizers, plastic drinking straws, and other products of a pampered, hypochondriac society.  In today’s column, I will look at the issue of straws and save the hand-sanitizers for later discussion.

Technically, a drinking straw is a short tube of plastic intended for the transfer of beverage from its container to the mouth of the drinker.  The earliest versions were hollow stems of grass, literally made of straw by the Sumerians, used for drinking beer to avoid the nasty solid byproducts of fermentation.  The modern drinking straw was patented in 1888 by inventor and Washington, DC resident Marvin Chester Stone with at least 10 different types of straws now available to consumers: from crazy straws to miniature drink-box straws and even cereal straws.  Single-use plastic straws are now standard fare for fast-food chains and sit-down restaurants, and many folks use them at home regularly without thought to the throw-away plastic after it hits the trash can.  One advantage of using a straw when drinking is the reduction of tooth decay; many soft drinks have acidic properties so using a straw reduces the contact time between tooth and liquid.  Another advantage is the comfort they provide to patients who need to drink but must lie prostrate in their hospital beds.  Mostly, straws are products contrived for short-lived convenience.

Aside from their few advantages, do drinking straws have any ecological drawbacks?  If so, do responsible substitutes exist?  Or perhaps alternative behaviors?

In the United States, we discard hundreds of BILLIONS of plastic drinking straws every year.  That’s thousands of tons of plastic thrown away haplessly!  They are a direct product of the petrochemical industry, an enormous market that helps to enslave us to continued oil production and dependence.  Further, such plastics leach known carcinogens into our drinks and, eventually, into landfills and oceans where they can wreck havoc for wildlife.  With few exceptions (as noted above), straws are frivolous, contrived, energy-intensive, and ecologically destructive – a vainglorious symbol of needless waste.

Though aware of the issue, I was not earnest about changing my own behavior until a good friend and colleague named Santiago Lobeira visited from Mexico.  He’s a successful entrepreneur in Mexico City, focused throughout his stellar professional life on sustainability products and green marketing, who helped found a company called  He walks the talk, so to speak, by using a scooter and public transportation to go to work each day, installing waterless urinals and using green-roof and solar technology in his home, and … refusing to use plastic drinking straws.

Further, Santiago sits on several boards to help protect endangered species and ecosystems throughout his beautiful country.  During his recent stay here in the Roanoke Valley, we visited several restaurants.  When served his drink, my friend politely declined his straws and then offered our waitresses an explanation for his action.  Ah, a teaching moment!  By the end of his week-long visit, Santiago had me convinced along with several of my students and their parents to forego plastic drinking straws.  Often times, such paradigm shifts begin from the bottom up – personal choices that trump the political status quo to bring about meaningful change.

What are our alternatives to plastic drinking straws?  Well, for one, do without.  Why do we need them?  If it’s for sanitation, then protest to the restaurant manager that you wish clean cups and glasses rather than decry the inconvenience of a meal without straws.  If it’s for dental health or bedside expediency, then sturdy, inexpensive straws made of borosilicate glass or stainless steel are viable options.  Otherwise do without!

It’s time to ban plastic drinking straws altogether.  If we wish to free ourselves from our national addiction to petroleum, let’s begin with plastic products such as drinking straws.  Suck it up, America!

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  1. How many times have we used a drinking straw and never stopped to think what happens to them after we throw then away, I know the garbage truck picks up our trash and removes it to the dump…but what then?
    Really makes me stop and think..
    Such a little thing to give up and help with our Petroleum problem…maybe little now but who knows later?

  2. Great article…I enjoyed it very much! Banning drinking straws leads us to another door where the plastic trash bags are, another door where plastic everything is….The list can go on and on…I don’t think we will ever see the day where the Plastic Industry is put to sleep….Maybe our next generation will~!

  3. Hello! Does anyone remember the saying that “neccessity is the mother of invention”? How can we put a man on the moon and explore outer space and not be able to produce a bio degradable straw? I feel like I just gave a million dollar nudge to someone!

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