Publisher’s View: The Last Straw

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Straws – those slender plastic tubes from which to sip frothy, sweetened, coffee drinks, sodas, and other beverages – are awesome.  Children transform them into toys, sucking in chocolate milk at different speeds, in a kind of stutter-step race to the top. They hold one end to trap the liquid, allowing it to pour out all at once in a satisfying splash, and create weapons of soft destruction by balling up the pipes’ paper wrapping – or leaving it half on – and firing away.  Adults wrap their lips around the cylinders seductively, drawing in fluid that’s almost guaranteed to be festive.  After all, straws are generally attached to something delicious, or at least thirst-quenching.

Straws are also absurd.  An excess piece of plastic that’s designed to keep lips away from the associated container.  Their purpose is trivial, non-essential, fatuous.  Are we afraid that the too cold or too hot beverage will attack our face unless it’s tethered a safe distance away?  Are there too few parts in a takeaway beverage vessel – lid, protective sleeve, hole punch – that we need another one, so that we have sufficient elements to meticulously construct our to-go cups like mini model airplanes?

Once restricted to 1930s’ soda fountains, straws have become one of the planet’s most ubiquitous unnecessary products. Americans may use upwards of a half-billion straws, every day.  Many of these are discarded like cigarette butts, onto sidewalks.  More simply escape the recycling stream to attach to much greater water bodies than what’s inside a cup, making their way to the sea in a quest to fulfill their essential purpose of fastening tube to liquid. Although straws amount to a fraction of ocean plastic, their size makes them one of the most insidious polluters.  They entangle marine animals, are consumed by fish, and slow-bleed their pliable flesh into the eco-system, causing who knows what kind of weird damage.

In a fully compassionate, aware and thoughtful world we’d all laugh at our odd addiction to artificial drink pipettes, and then seriously banish them from the earth, in a “can you believe we used to do that” kind of way.  Instead, like much of our daily activities, we don’t think about it.  Even if we did, it’s far from clear we’d be willing to sacrifice this trivial bit of momentary pleasure.  A greater number of states have passed laws protecting the use of plastic bags than prohibiting them, a far more pernicious, though arguably more useful, piece of future garbage.  And even then, debate rages over whether their common replacements, paper sacks, are any less environmentally harmful.  Straw banning to some is probably as abhorrent as book burning to others, seen as a fundamental attack on our God-given right to do whatever we damn please. 

The capitalistic system, combined with unrelenting population growth, is just too good at turning what should be luxuries – water-sucking almonds, electronic devices, pesticides – into quickly disposable commodities.  Until they are consumed to death or become too dangerously ubiquitous to continue to use.  It’s a distressingly familiar tragedy of the commons.  Not so long ago we hunted whales almost to extinction to make buttons out of their bones, and wiped the West African black rhinoceros from existence so as to harvest its horns in the service of improving the quality of our erections. 

Someday, will grow to understand that straws – and plastic bags and water bottles, among other items – create a planet-altering killer waste stream, and do something to effectively manage or eliminate them.  Until then, the earth will just have to suck it up.