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National Skip the Straw Day: Pioneers in Disappearing Plastic Straws

Paper vs. Plastic Straws [Photo by Geraldine Dávila González]

Tomorrow is National Skip the Straw Day and while all around the Washington, D.C., people are skipping the straw or switching to non-plastic straws, it made me wonder about the current straw laws in the U.S., especially here in D.C., and how we got to this point.

Throughout its history, the straw has received countless makeovers, but I was curious: how was the straw created in the first place? According to the Smithsonian Institution’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, the original design for the modern straw, which was designed to be made out of paper, was patented by a D.C. native, Marvin Stone on January 3, 1888. Stalks of rye grass were used prior to the invention of the straw, and that annoyed Stone since it left residues in his drink. Later, in 1937, Joseph B. Friedman, after seeing his daughter struggling to drink a milkshake, patented a design for the “bendy” straw. The paper straw ruled the market in the 1960s until it was discovered that plastic straws were more durable and made for a more pleasant drinking experience, leading to the paper straw being phased out completely by the 1970s. Historically, the straw has shape-shifted into consumer-appealing forms like the “Krazy Straw,” a staple at fun parties and events, and the “Magic Straw,” which contained a filter for depositing flavor into the drink. Some companies even created cereal straws, so people can drink their milk and eat their cereal, a two for one. However, these didn’t last long since humans are unable to eat and drink at the exact same time and were discontinued in 2009.

In comparison to proposed alternatives, the plastic disposable straw has reigned supreme. In fact, Americans go through 500 million straws a day.  However, these plastic straws are not recyclable and end up in our oceans, causing pollution and harming wildlife. Plastic straws account for about 4 percent of the plastic pollution found in oceans by volume, but less than 1 percent by weight, and plastic never decomposes, as it uses UV rays to break down into smaller pieces, never disappearing entirely. In attempt to address this environmental issue, Washington, D.C., decided to ban plastic straws altogether. This measure was implemented in January 2019, with D.C. following Seattle as one of the few U.S. cities to establish a plastic straw ban law. There is a phase-out period in place until July to make the transition to alternatives before the city begins imposing fines. Other cities with a plastic straw ban in place are Miami BeachMalibu, San Francisco, and St. Petersburg, Florida.

This isn’t the first environment-centered product restriction law established by D.C. It enacted a nickel tax on plastic bags in 2010 and banned plastic foam food containers in 2016.

As D.C. Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) director Tommy Wells told the D.C. Council committee that considered the proposed straw law, “District businesses and organizations that serve or sell food or beverages must use compostable or reusable straws,” a classification that includes those made of paper, bamboo, hay, stainless steel, and glass. Consumers can also use purchased straws like the reusable alternatives being developed out of metals and glass, including a collapsible straw created for easy storage.

The ban on plastic straws directly affects people with disabilities, who may require a straw to drink. Mathew McCollough, director of D.C.’s Office of Disability Rights, testified that paper straws are more likely to break apart, rendering them unusable or creating a choking hazard. In addition, people with disabilities can severely injure themselves if they bite down hard on a metal or glass straw. “While the reduction of plastic straws for public consumption is a just and needed cause,” McCollough said, “the complete elimination of plastic straws from these entities neglects the legitimate needs of many DC residents and visitors.” One-pager states from DOEE states that they “recognize some customers with disabilities require plastic straws as a reasonable accommodation to consume food or beverages. Regulated entities must keep a limited stock of plastic straws available to meet these needs and remain compliant with local and federal disability rights laws.”

To implement these policies, Zach Rybarczyk from DOEE inspects D.C. restaurants to monitor compliance with the plastic-straw ban. Now known as the straw cop, Rybarczyk was seen patrolling Union Station, warning establishments about the length of their grace period and the amount of the fines in place if they keep distributing plastic straws.

Private companies are making an effort to eliminate plastic straws even if laws are not put into place in all cities. States like California and Hawaii have introduced proposals that would restrict their use, and cities like New York City, and Portland also have proposals in progress.


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