The Hot Topic: The best kind of straw is the one you don’t use at all
Asking for a plastic straw in your drink, or not refusing one, is fast becoming a matter of shame, a taboo in social circles: it’s perceived to be one of the most obvious distinctions between a sensitive and aware person, and an unaware one.
The straw has become a talisman for the fight against climate change, a symbol for the war against the capitalistic impulse that is destroying the environment. Asking for a plastic straw in your drink, or not refusing one, is fast becoming a matter of shame, a taboo in social circles: it’s perceived to be one of the most obvious distinctions between a sensitive and aware person, and an unaware one. While this study which claims that Americans use 500 million straws a day has proved dubious, the actual numbers can’t be much better. Straws are used once and then languish in our soil and rivers for 200 years, and not even Donald Trump can deny the fact of it.
This ‘straw-shaming’ led to creating tremendous pressure on food chains and governments to take action and ban, or significantly reduce, the usage of plastic straws- which goes to show just one of the ways the consumer can make a big difference in matters of climate change. In place of the plastic straw, alternatives cropped cup: straws made of paper, metal, bamboo, even pasta. Moreover, these alternatives are now fashionable - it’s cool to be eco-friendly. Yet I feel the most important question is the one barely anyone asks: why do we need a straw at all?
The usage of a straw is built into the culture of convenience that capitalism propagates. It allows us to have our drink without the ice troubling our teeth, without smudging our lipstick, and without floating mint or other seasonings getting stuck in weird places. The straw pierces through the whipped cream, getting right to the bottom middle of the drink where the really good, un-watered stuff is, at the same time evenly tempering how much of it goes in our mouth. Despite it all, it’s completely possible to lead a normal, and dare I even say good, life without a straw.
Perhaps in India, the problem could be more deep-rooted, a society very much entrenched in caste biases, with huge divides between what people consider pure and impure, vegetarian and otherwise. If society is constantly worried about drinking from the same cup that might be ‘unhygienic’ or contaminated by another’s lips, using the straw levels a person up. You can have your whole private passageway for the drink. A memory comes to my mind: I was hosting a workshop where I had invited an author, and she daintily took a seat as I ordered her an iced tea. When the server offered it to her, however, she looked at the glass in disdain and made sure the derision in her voice was clear: ‘Bring me a straw please.’ While she was well within her rights to ask for one, the tone, and the intention behind the tone, wasn’t right; I instantly lost my adulation.
There is another side to the story, however. This piece in the Chicago Tribune claims that noble though the efforts against the straw may be, they don’t really amount to that much. It says, ‘Two Australian scientists estimate that there are up to 8.3 billion plastic straws scattered on global coastlines. Yet even if all those straws were suddenly washed into the sea, they’d account for about 0.03 per cent of the 8 million metric tons of plastics estimated to enter the oceans in a given year.’ So if straws are one of the smallest culprits, why all this anger against them?
It’s just because straws are so damn unnecessary - yet so widely used. Most people don’t need a straw to lead a whole, nourishing and fulfilling life, yet 1.6 straws per person are used every day in America. While it’s true that ditching a straw might not make a big dent on the environmental footprint, that is a different argument: it tells us that ditching the straw does not absolve us of our responsibilities towards climate change, that it is only the beginning. The straw should be like the ‘gateway drug’, and it should get us thinking about using other forms of plastic, and how we can avoid it.
The replacements for plastic straws aren’t that much better. Paper straws are ineffective and use almost the same amount of energy as goes into the making of a plastic straw, although they biodegrade much quicker. Metal straws use copious amounts of resources for its production, and only end up being beneficial if the same straw is used over and over for a long time. Any kind of straw will use some resources in its production, and instead of adding that additional strain, sustainable though it may be, it’s equally easy to not use one at all. And even if I do end up spilling a couple of drops down my front, my favourite thing is to tell myself that I can take one for the environment.