How It’s Made: The Straw

We're diving into the straw's origin and the impact they have on our environment.

Legend has it, that in 1888, on a sweltering day in Washington D.C., the straw was invented. Marvin Chester Stone, the owner of a cigarette factory, sat sipping his mint julep from a piece of rye straw (which was popular at the time). The refreshing mint julep, commonly associated with the southern United States, and specifically the Kentucky Derby, is made with bourbon, sugar, muddled mint leaves and a heaping amount of crushed ice. As the story goes, while enjoying his julep, Stone quickly discovered his rye straw was making the julep taste more like grass as it began to disintegrate in his cup. Not wanting to ruin his drink, innovation struck, and he tightly rolled a piece of paper around a pencil, applied a bit of glue to the seam, and coated it with paraffin wax–thus creating the very first paper straw.

But we can’t give Stone all the credit. There’s evidence that straws have been used for centuries, with some scholars pointing back to around 2600 B.C. with early depictions. They show people gathered around a shared vessel, like what you’d expect to see at a bachelorette party, drinking from what appears to be a straw.

Stone’s paper straws rose in popularity, until the 1930s, when San Francisco inventor, Joseph Friedman came along. While sitting at his brother’s fountain parlor observing his daughter struggling to drink a milkshake from a straight paper straw, Friedman brainstormed a new innovation. Realizing the need for a bendable straw option, the corrugated straw was born. He later founded the Flex-Straw Company, and his straws were adopted by hospitals to aid patients who needed better access to liquids while lying down.

When the big boom of manufactured plastics hit in the 1950s, the straw was given a cosmetic makeover. Also during this time, consumers were looking for shiny, new products to purchase that just so happened to be made of plastic. Post Great Depression and World War II, consumerism was on the rise and the majority of items purchased were made of plastic–the new, cheap material.

Continuing into the ’70s and ’80s, plastic straws were made available in multiple colors, and even jumbo sizes. And no ’90s kid could forget color-changing straws and crazy straws. Eventually, paper straws fell into the shadow of a global plastic regime.

The Impact

Today, the use of plastic products, especially single-use plastics like straws and water bottles, are a hot environmental topic. According to an Ocean Conservatory report, 8 million tons of plastics enter our oceans every year. And just this month, the World Wildlife Fund reported another sperm whale had washed ashore in Italy with more than 48 pounds of plastic inside her belly. Americans use 500 million straws per day, adding up to about 1.6 straws per person, many of which end up in the ocean.

Data like this is shining a bright light on what our single-use plastic products do to the environment, and how plastic use can greatly impact generations to come. It has started an outcry from the public to reduce our plastic intake.

In July 2018, Seattle became the first U.S. city to ban plastic straws and utensils from restaurants. This movement has created a steady following with other major cities and well-known consumer brands.

Maker’s Mark bourbon in Kentucky launched their own campaign called #CocktailsforCleanups. This initiative draws on the history of Marvin Chester Stone, bourbon’s connection with the mint julep and drinking straws. The original cocktail did not include a plastic straw–which is why the paper straw was created!–and because of it, their new campaign helps to generate awareness and drive change around the use of plastic straws and single-use plastics.

Austin Hazel of Maker’s Mark Kentucky said, “Cocktails for Cleanups is our commitment to remove 75,000 pounds of trash from the world’s oceans and waterways. We recently supported a major initiative to replace straws in cocktails, and today, we only use paper straws for our beverages at Star Hill Provisions, and here at the Maker’s Mark distillery for events.”

What Can We Do?

As we become more aware of our ever-changing environment, we have the opportunity to make better decisions that will impact our planet’s health. Here are a few tips that all consumers can make to help reduce the use of plastic:

  • When ordering your next drink, request not to have a plastic straw, or no straw at all.
  • Purchase a set of reusable metal straws. While they require a little extra cleaning, they fit in most purses or bags, and cut down on environmental waste.
  • Look for compostable straws made from bamboo or drinking straws from EcoProducts. These straws are made from 100% renewable materials, which will naturally biodegrade into nutrient-rich organic materials when disposed of in the correct recycling facilities.

Turns out, you can make a positive impact on the planet just by sipping your favorite cocktail. Cheers to that!

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Image by Rachael Jones