RIP Plastic Straws: 1960–2018

(Image credit: Jenny Chang-Rodriguez)

The year 2018 was “the final straw” for the plastic straw. After a long-fought battle against a watertight environmental smear campaign, the plastic straw has officially admitted defeat and commenced its peaceful departure from the public sphere.

Near the end of its life, the sometimes-bendy, oft-bitten, always-disposable drinking aid found itself at odds with eco-minded U.S. cities, fast-food dining establishments, airlines, and the largest coffee chain in the world. With the strong swells of the tide of public opinion against it, the single-use plastic straw will litter our oceans no more (or at least, a lot less).

The plastic straw descends from a long line of assistive drinking devices — perhaps most notably, the ingenuity of the ancient Sumerians who used long, thin, metal tubes to drink “beer” 5,000 years ago.

It is closest in kin to the paper drinking straw, first patented in 1888 by Marvin Stone, a paper-cigarette-holder manufacturer. Decades later in the 1930s, the “bendy-straw ” made its debut, thanks to inventor Joseph Friedman, who had the foresight to create an indented hinge mechanism. This technology was immediately embraced by hospitals, as it allowed patients to drink liquids from their beds.

The rise of plastic technology in the early 1900s made way for the plastic straw as we know (knew?) it. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the plastic straw was capable of being mass-produced. Sturdier than paper, cheaper than metal, the plastic straw found its sweet spot in sodas across the country.

During what one might call its heyday (i.e., now), 500 million straws are used daily in the U.S. In a world that has reached its plastic saturation point, it’s time for the plastic straw to ascend to the big milkshake in the sky. (For those it leaves behind, it’s back to our ancestral roots of metal and paper straws.)

Beloved by iced coffee fanatics, the juice-box set, and liberal-handed waitstaff at casual dining establishments like Applebee’s, the plastic straw is gone but not forgotten. It leaves behind beloved counterparts including but not limited to the Starbucks Frappuccino, bubble tea, and Capri Sun.