The First Straw

A straw is a simple thing. It’s a tube, a conveyance mechanism for liquid. The defining characteristic of the straw is the emptiness inside it. This is the stuff of tragedy, and America.

The straw is officially part of the culture wars, and you might be thinking, “Gah, these contentious times we live in!” But the straw has always been dragged along by the currents of history, soaking up the era, shaping not its direction, but its texture.

The invention of American industrialism, the creation of urban life, changing gender relations, public-health reform, suburbia and its hamburger-loving teens, better living through plastics, and the financialization of the economy: The straw was there for all these things—rolled out of extrusion machines, dispensed, pushed through lids, bent, dropped into the abyss.

A McCountry meal from a McDonald’s Prague, image by BrokenSphere (CC BY-SA 3.0)

You can learn a lot about this country, and the dilemmas of contemporary capitalism, by taking a straw-eyed view.

  1. Fjonan

    Reducing the usage of plastic straws might not solve environmental problems in an ecological sense but I disagree that is not worth pursuing since changing the perception of the people about these issues is a huge help in the matter. I think it helps to create awareness about waste and environmental issues and that it leads to a fundamental shift in the way people care about these things. You can’t make any progress if you only focus on the giant big problems like car tires and the pollution China produces because the everyday citizen has little agency in those issues so this leads to the widespread believe, that you can’t really do anything about this and this is very dangerous.

    “A remarkable, glorious achievement is just
    what a long series of unremarkable,
    inglorious tasks looks like from far away.”

    1. C

      I wholeheartedly agree… I think this was a huge missed opportunity (and kinda sloppy storytelling) to just say that eliminating plastic straws from our lives won’t fix the environment. Like, obviously. No one actually believes that straws are the magic bullet. But is reducing the number of straws we consume a good thing? Absolutely. And like you set, it fosters a mindset of awareness around our waste-oriented culture. Single-use plastic straws are only the beginning. When there’s buy-in for that change, then we can look at any number of other single-use or plastic items. We not only desperately need people to be aware of how their consumer choices and daily actions affect the environment, but also for people to internalize the need to take action at every level of society if we are to stem the effects of climate change and ecological destruction.

  2. Richard Strimbeck

    A few things that came to mind as I listened to the straws episode:
    1. Straw wrapper caterpillars ( On the verge of extinction now that straws are more tightly wrapped.
    2. Curly straws. ( Amusing to watch the fluid whip around the curves, and the design possibilities are endless.
    3. Yerba mate straws (, Norwegian web site because that’s where I live, it’s a stylish assortment, and the url is much shorter than the alternatives). I wonder is these predate bendy straws, falsifying your putative claim that were the first modification of the basic straw to come along in two millennia.
    Love the show. I listen to every one.

  3. Hey, I’m an Environmental Attorney and expert on plastic pollution. I’m a founder of This story misses so many key points about the plastic straw and the rise of plastic pollution in America and around the world, especially in our oceans. Single Use Plastics, including the straw (which is among the top 10 items found on beaches worldwide) cause harm from creation from petrochemicals- now often produced from fracking- to the creation of permanent waste that has entered our food chain. No, reducing one type of single use plastic will not solve the bigger problem of producing and disposing of dangerous petrochemical waste, but it’s a part of the solution and opens the discussion to people about single use plastics in general. I wrote legislation that banned plastic microbeads in consumer products that washed down our drains, too small to be filtered at sewage treatment, and end up in our oceans where fish eat the plastic and we eat the fish. President Obama’s signed this legislation. Please see all my plastics articles on my website for an overview of how single use plastic harms human health and our ecosystem. I would love to talk to you further. By the way, I drafted the model law to make plastic straws available on request only for California that has passed. This law does not deny anyone who needs a straw access to one. It also will reduce a lot of permanent waste and harm to sea life, like endangered sea turtles. See my articles and articles about my work here

    1. Ella Knox

      Thank you Lisa for everything you do. I wish Roman had taken the time to interview someone as knowledgeable as you during the production of this episode.

  4. John Horn

    I’d say the defining characteristic of a straw is convenience (a word that wasn’t included in your story on straws) — we use them because our society is hooked on convenience. Which is related to the disposability of consumer culture. It’s human nature to want cheap, easy and “fast” products, so they are soon subsidized by the government. And the new “values” of financialization, vulture capitalism and concentrated wealth are also about convenience, for the monied interests.

    We can’t help ourselves from wanting easier, simpler things — pre-measured, pre-sorted, pre-packaged goods and services. The question is whether we can help our society survive our bottomless appetite for convenience.

  5. Heather

    For the first time in listening to 99% Invisible podcast, I was disappointed with your recent podcast about the straw’s history. It missed a big angle on the straw ban.

    Your guest mentioned that banning the straw would not stop climate change. True.

    Picking on the straw has prompted many, like our family and our network, to think about their consumption and how it changes the environment. Package-free grocery stores, waste-free days at schools, plastic bag bans in some large cities blows. This blows over to minimal living and consumption.

    #strawssuck and so does plastic. Banning the straw isn’t the answer but it’s the start to change habits, and in turn help our land and oceans. We must refuse before we reduce, reuse and recycle.

    Another beautiful nerd trying to live light.

  6. Paul A van den Bergen

    I did my PhD in plastics and messed around with small industrial plastic extruders – small being 12 feet long…

    There was an apocryphal story about an industrial accident at a straw factory. Straws are extruded at astonishing speed through a spider die – 64 x 64 straws at a time and are chopped to length immediately they exit the extruder onto a conveyor belt. Plastic is notorious when extruded for picking up static charge, so large ion generators are used to suppress all static charge around the equipment.

    the story goes that the static ionizer was on a separate electrical circuit, which tripped. The extruder kept going. Within seconds, tens of thousands of straws, with negative charge at their tips and positive charge in their mid-section, started to try and rearrange themselves to minimise that charge distribution… the factory filled with a self assembling electrified straw mess…

  7. R Smith

    Why even use straws? I’m sure they have their use in very limited situations like drinking from a cup while walking. But who needs them while dining in a restaurant? Just put the container to your mouth, tip, and drink.

    I never use straws or those plastic lids while dining in a fast food restaurant. But most everyone else does! Why use a straw and lid when the cup is going straight into the trash after you leave your table! WTF?

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