Straws and More Straws

In my growing bin of plastic items, I’ve started to notice trends in the ones I accumulate most often. I love giving greeting cards, and I’ve discovered that most of my favorite store-bought cards come in plastic sleeves, so I have stockpiled several of these already. I’ve also collected a large amount of bottle caps, which I plan to devote a full post to later this summer.

In addition to my growing collection of card sleeves and bottle caps, there’s another item that I’ve quickly accumulated, one that I didn’t even consider when I started this blog: that is the common drinking straw.

A few of the straws I've collected thus far

A few of the straws I’ve collected thus far

According to a 2013 document signed by Colorado’s Governor, John Hickenlooper, each day, Americans use approximately 500 million straws (Here’s a link: http://ecocycle.org/files/pdfs/BSF_CO_strawfreeday_proclamation.pdf). There are straws in juice boxes at schools, straws in fast-food sodas, straws used to stir cream and sugar into coffee, straws in water glasses at restaurants. Five-hundred million in one day. That means that in a year’s time more than 182 billion straws are used and thrown away in our country. That number really floors me—182 billion. That’s more than 22 times our world’s population. That’s a heck of a lot of straws.

And do we really need drinking straws at all? Sure, they protect our teeth from a cold shock when drinking icy beverages, but are they providing any other benefits?

It turns out that, yes, they do have some important functions: straws are especially good for the teeth because they help reduce staining as well as decay by keeping sticky substances like sodas from coating the enamel on our teeth. They also provide a hygienic function. When drinking from a straw, you avoid contact with the drinking glass itself, which could have germs on its surface.

Straws are important utensils when we eat or drink, but do they need to be plastic?

A big trend right now is paper straws, and these seem like easy replacements for the plastic alternatives. I’ve seen many comments online that critique paper straws for becoming gummy and soft when used. I agree that this can happen when using a paper straw, but I did an experiment: I used a paper straw while writing this post and waited to see how long it took for this straw to soften. It took about three hours of sipping frequently from my water glass for the straw to lose its firmness, but I still didn’t experience the gummy disintegration I was expecting.

photo 1

The paper straw I used while writing this post

It doesn’t seem to me that paper straws have many drawbacks—plus, the kinds I bought are quite pretty, which appeals to my girly side. If the paper variety isn’t a person’s preference though, there are also glass straws and metal straws that can be used time and time again. You can even carry one of these with you, but I’m already feeling so much like a packhorse these day that I’d prefer just not to use a straw rather than toting one around.

photo 2

I love these colorful paper straws

Thinking about our gargantuan consumption of straws, my question is this: can we try to give up straws used with certain beverages? For example, do we really need one when drinking a glass of water? With water, there’s actually a benefit in direct enamel contact. Also, I feel skeptical of a greater hygienic benefit when using straws. I have worked a couple of jobs in food service, and I was a little surprised by how difficult it is to control the amount of contact a server has with food and utensils.

One summer, I worked as a waitress in a popular Denver restaurant. We were instructed to never touch the top third of a drinking glass, so there was awareness of public health there. But while we were instructed to do this and frequently wash our hands, we often could not avoid touching a plate or a fork or knife. At this restaurant, we also served a complimentary basket of chips and breadsticks to every table. In the kitchen, servers were constantly scooping these snacks into baskets. Sometimes sneezes happened. Sometimes a crazy busy server used his or her hands to place the chips in a basket.

Dining out itself exposes us to greater levels of germs, even when servers use precaution. The straw, to me, feels a little unnecessary. It seems to provide us with a feeling of security, but perhaps no definitive health benefit. I could find no studies online to prove they make drinking safer.

These past few months, it has become somewhat comical as I try to avoid straws. Whenever I order an iced coffee, I try to catch the barista before I’m handed the requisite straw. At restaurants, I’ve started asking for “no straw with my water” before the water even arrives. This has raised a few eyebrows. I have become a little paranoid about one showing up in my glass.

The Colorado proclamation that I mentioned previously, the one signed by Governor Hickenlooper, declared July 11, 2013 to be a “straw-free” day. It suggested that on this day the public accept not getting a straw unless they ask for one. I wish this could be our normal practice everyday.

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