Mindanao Times

With plastic straw ban, Washington turns its back on its own invention

- SÉBASTIEN DUVAL

“HOW DO YOU drink a milkshake without a straw?”

It is a question the city of Wash- ington will soon face after deciding, in the interest of the environmen­t, to ban plastic drinking straws -- an almost sacrilegio­us act in the birthplace of this simple object, a seemingly indispensa­ble part of daily American life.

In the last century, millions of straws were produced in the Stone Straw Building, a stolid-looking structure of yellowing brick in a residentia­l neighborho­od. The building now houses the capital’s transit police headquarte­rs.

The only visible sign of its historic character comes from a discreet commemorat­ive plaque affixed to a wall above a garbage bin that honors the memory of Marvin C. Stone, “Inventor of the Paper Straw.”

According to legend, Stone, who settled in Washington after being wounded while fighting for the Union side in the Civil War, had the inspiratio­n one evening while sipping on his favorite cocktail, a mint julep.

At that time, people sometimes used actual straws -- dried lengths of ryegrass -- for drinking, but Stone was put off by the inescapabl­e rye-flavored residue they imparted.

So he adapted a machine already in use for making paper cigarette holders, instead wrapping spirals of paper around a pencil-like cylinder, attaching the ends with wax and then removing the cylinder.

He filed for a patent in 1888 -- the objective, he said in his applicatio­n, was to create a “cheap, durable and unobjectio­nable substitute for natural straws commonly used for the administra­tion of medicines, beverages, &c.” -- and the rest is history.

But almost a century and a half later, his ungrateful adoptive home became the second large US city, after Seattle, to ban the plastic descendant­s of Stone’s popular invention.

The ban technicall­y took effect January 1 but it came with a grace period, meant to ease the transition for restaurant­s and businesses, that ends July 1.

- Everything ‘to go’ -

“A lot of businesses are still using plastic straws and don’t have a strategy,” said Kirk Francis, who manages the Tastemaker­s food hall in a former mayonnaise factory adjoining the Stone Straw Building.

The young, environmen­tally minded entreprene­ur faced the same existentia­l question years ago when he launched “Captain Cookie and the Milk Man,” a food truck selling baked treats and dairy products: “How do you drink a milkshake without a straw?”

He considered straws of metal, of biodegrada­ble paper or of vegetable-based material -- many of them more expensive or flimsier than those of plastic -- and says he has yet to find a “good solution.”

The youthful “Captain” Kirk, who wears a Cookie Monster cap over his curly brown hair, knows that most of his customers don’t really care that much: “Customers want a straw that works well.”

So getting people to give up their straws will not be easy. They have been an inextricab­le part of American culture since they were first promoted as a way to curb the spread of disease at a time when people would share a common cup when drinking from public fountains.

Another American, Joseph Friedman, elaborated on Stone’s invention in the 1930s after watching his daughter struggle with a milkshake. His modificati­on, the flexible straw, has grown in popularity alongside other mainstays of Americans’ consumer culture: soda fountains, carry-out food, iced drinks with lots of ice.

- Plastic on plastic -

The ban on plastic straws is really just a symbolic beginning, said Sarah Perrin, a Tastemaker­s customer, who was with her young daughter. Five-year-old Lily was using a plastic straw to sip fruit juice from a plastic cup topped with a plastic lid.

“Without a straw, she would spill it all over,” her mother said.

“The straw ban comes from a good intention, but what about disabled people and kids?” Perrin asked. “It can help us feeling better about ourselves, but does it really make

a difference for the environmen­t if we don’t target the corporatio­ns first?”

Collin Odell, sitting with his dog on the food hall’s terrace -- with a view of Marvin Stone’s old factory -was also using a plastic straw as he drank a guava juice beverage with plenty of ice.

“It came with my order!” the young resident of Brookland, a fast gentrifyin­g neighborho­od, explained a bit defensivel­y.

“I’m fully on board with the ban, if it can help reduce the massive amount of garbage in the oceans,” he said.

Odell said he is seeing fewer plastic straws in Washington.

“But it’s not the case elsewhere in the country. “I’m always amazed when I travel outside of DC to be served in Styrofoam cups” -- yet another very American obsession.

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