Maybe it’s that you don’t want to put your mouth where other mouths have been. Or maybe you’ve been sucking for so long, sucking has become your default setting. You are thirsty. You are at lunch, and your waiter just brought you a cold glass of water.
Enter the straw.
“What a fine liquid-extraction device,” you don’t think to yourself, because no one really ever thinks about the straw. You finish sucking, and toss it into a recycling bin, because it is plastic, and you are a good person.
Dear good person: Straws are not recyclable.
They will sit, defiantly undecomposed, in landfills.
They will float out into the clear blue sea.
They will end up in a viral YouTube video, lodged in the bloody nostril of an endangered sea turtle.
So goes the message of a burgeoning movement that makes a specific, surprisingly bold request: Please stop using disposable plastic straws.
A growing number of bars and restaurants across the country are choosing to no longer offer straws, unless they are requested. Oscar-winning actor Tim Robbins, narrator of the new documentary “Straws,” does not want you to use straws. Adrian Grenier, “Entourage” hunk turned U.N. Environment Programme hunk, has put out the word that he wants you to #stopsucking. Model Brooklyn Decker, hip-hop trio De La Soul, and celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson all care about this straw situation so much that they were willing to appear in yet another line-up-multiple-celebrities-in-a-row PSA, in which they allow straws to be smacked out of their mouths by a giant octopus tentacle.
Exit the straw.
It’s not that the straw is the worst plastic, or the most prevalent plastic, or the most deadly-to-aquatic-life plastic. It’s because the straw is, as Grenier puts it, a “gateway plastic,” insidious in its seeming innocence, in our inability to see it for what it really is: unnecessary, toxic flotsam, contributing to a mass of plastic garbage that will one day — by 2050, experts predict — literally outweigh all the fish in the sea. The straw should be an easy thing to forfeit, on the long list of pollutants worthy of boycott.
But a wet tentacle-slap might be what it takes to separate us from our personal plastic pipettes — because it turns out we are bizarrely attached to them. It is estimated that Americans use, and then dispose of, 500 million straws every day.
A habit so thoroughly ingrained in our shared psyche must have an explanation for it.
And yet . . . if we’re all a bunch of germaphobes who don’t trust the cleansing power of industrial dishwashers, why doesn’t this aversion apply to restaurant mugs or wine glasses?
We’ve heard the excuses: You need the straw to keep your iced coffee from staining your newly whitened teeth. You don’t want to reapply your lipstick. You don’t want to splash the interior of the car. Sure, fine — but does that really account for all our straw usage?
A straw might be many things — a personal preference, a modicum of control — but in the realm of conscious thought it is mostly nothing, which is what makes it such a tough habit to break: You never even remember picking it up in the first place.
The first modern straw, patented in 1888, was simply one man’s way to avoid getting mint leaves stuck in his teeth. Marvin Stone, a Washington, D.C., manufacturer of paper cigarette holders, was said to have gotten the idea for a paper drinking straw as he sipped a mint julep through a stalk of rye grass. Irked by the grainy residue left by the crumbling plant stem, he tried wrapping strips of paper around a pencil and then gluing them together. His inspiration became an industry, as he opened his first drinking-straw factories in downtown Washington.
The bendy straw followed in 1937. Then plastic straws began replacing paper in the 1960s. Then came the crazy straws, extendo-straws (for juice boxes), extra-wide straws (for milkshakes and bubble tea), straws in every shape and color.
“Straws are the industry standard,” says a waiter at Commissary, a busy lunch spot near Logan Circle in Northwest Washington. Commissary’s manager boasts that the restaurant is proudly “green certified” — its beef is grass-fed, it draws upon wind power, its napkins are “unbleached.” But as much as the management would like to get rid of straws, there are other factors to consider: Kids. Customers with injuries or disabilities, who don’t have the use of their arms. People with sensitive teeth. They’ve compromised by not putting straws in the water glasses (some people ask for them anyway). But order a Diet Coke, and you will find, as a recent lunch customer named Ana did, a black plastic straw inserted in the drink before it leaves the kitchen.
Ana wears flat shoes made out of recycled plastic bottles. When her office cafeteria at the World Bank placed a reminder that silverware was more environmentally friendly than plastic utensils, she happily complied. At the grocery store, she always feels bad when she forgets her reusable bags. She’s like a lot of us that way — she’s environmentally friendly when she thinks of it.
But Ana is not thinking about her straw.
“If it wasn’t there already, I wouldn’t have asked for one,” she says.
At Sweetgreen, an eco-friendly salad chain a few doors down P Street NW, the lids and straws are placed away from the cups, so a customer named Kelly Ann must walk an extra few feet if she really wants a straw.
“If I was just sitting here, I wouldn’t use one,” Kelly Ann explains, but she’s walking back to her office, and how does one walk and drink a cold beverage sans straw? She’s comforted by a sign above the trash can that says her choice isn’t so bad: These particular straws are compostable.
Compostable straws — most often made of a resin derived from cornstarch — are just a little “weird,” admits a Sweetgreen manager. After finishing his shift, he walks to a Starbucks on the same block, where the straws are somewhat iconic, as straws go. The kelly-green plastic tubes are beloved by Instagrammers; less so by volunteers for the Ocean Conservancy, who every year find hundreds of thousands of straws in an international coastal cleanup. At the Starbucks, a customer waiting on a $5 venti something-something picks up one of these straws from the counter, and twirls it between his fingers like a baton.
“Michael?” the barista calls. Michael pops his straw out of its wrapper. From there, we can probably guess its trajectory:
It will probably remain stuck through the lid of his cup when he tosses it into the recycling bin. A truck will carry it to a waste transfer station, and then another truck to a recycling facility, where it will land on a conveyor belt. Machines will then pluck away the recyclables that surround it — first the cardboard, then the paper, the aluminum, the glass, the plastic bottles, and so on — until it ends up in a pile of items too small, too useless to be detected by the machines.
This pile is known as “the debris,” and you can probably guess where it’s headed. Not to some sustainability afterlife. To the landfills of America.
And now maybe you are starting to feel a little overwhelmed. How many plastic straws have you used in your lifetime? Have any of your straws ever personally injured a turtle? What if climate change wipes out all the turtles anyway?
Dear good person: Take a deep breath. Here comes the waiter again. He has your iced tea.
You look at the paper-wrapped plastic tube he is about to hand to you.
“No, thank you,” you say. You put your mouth where other people’s mouths have been.
(Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that the documentary “Straws” had not yet been released.)