RM: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
RM: Over the summer, a new movement started to gain momentum. The movement to ban plastic drinking straws.
(Newscaster): It’s now illegal for food service businesses in Seattle to provide plastic straws and utensils.
(Newscaster): Santa Cruz is among 28 others around the country that have banned or limited plastic straws or are considering it. California and Hawaii are even exploring statewide policies.
(Newscaster): Environmentalists say 500 million plastic straws end up in the world’s oceans every year harming wildlife. Restaurants could be fined 250 dollars.
RM: The argument against straws is pretty simple: we consume tons of plastic. Not much of it gets recycled. Most of it ends up in landfills and oceans. So why not try to reduce a little of that waste? But, like most issues these days, there’s been a lot of disagreement about it. There’s been backlash from a few directions, including conservatives….
(Newscaster): The left’s war against…wait for it. Straws.
(Newscaster): It’s all a bunch of moral preening, right? It’s this idea that, we’re holier than thou…
RM: But people with disabilities also spoke up, because some of those folks actually need straws in order to drink.
(Newscaster): Straw ban affects people with disabilities. It might take away their tool of independence.
RM: And there’s even disagreement about the actual number of straws that we throw away each day. You hear the number 500 million floating around a lot. Apparently, that number came not from a rigorous study, but from a precocious nine year old’s science project.
(Newscaster): Not a nine-year-old science project, a nine-year old’s science project.
RM: Even the environmentalists could not agree on whether the straw ban was a good thing or not.
AM: Everybody’s got to have their thing. The real problem is cars. The real problem is buildings. The real problem is, have you seen China’s emissions? You know, the real problem is too much nitrogen, and you know, ocean acidification, and you know, any environmental problem is probably more important than plastic straws.
RM: This is journalist Alexis Madrigal. He wrote a great essay about plastic straws for “The Atlantic” and he’s gonna be our guide through all of this. Because he says that when you zoom out from the controversies of today and look at the actual history of plastic straws, they can tell us a lot about America.
RM: So tell me about some of those bigger themes that emerged when you looked at the history of plastic straws.
AM: Yeah so, you know, I used to do this quite a bit. Like, just take some little object and just trace its history. You know, you can look up the patents on Google, and you can search around for you know, the companies that made it, and you can see its technical evolution. You know, you can just look at it like the way you would look at the development of any technology. But the thing that was so crazy about the straw, was that it just hit so many of these like, real, true, major, trends in the way that the country worked. You know, the straw is there for the invention of American industrialism, for urbanization, for public health reform, for like, the suburbanization of the country, fast food, and now, of course, the culture wars. Like, it’s there for all of that.
RM: And so tell me where it all began. Did someone invent the straw or was it just always there?
AM: So, you know, there’s even like, scientific studies that show that orangutans like, will go like, “Hey, this straw-like thing is cool for doing straw-like stuff,” you know? So, it’s probably been around forever, there are ancient versions, etc. But in 19th century America, basically, the straw was rye. Like literally, you know, grass that grows and it’s kind of got this hollow tube and you dry it, you cut it into shape, and that’s what would happen. That was the straw. Straw was straw.
RM: Around this time there were also straws made out of more durable materials, like metal and glass. But then…
AM: Then along comes this guy in 1888, named Marvin Stone, and he creates what was then called the “Artificial straw.” And the artificial straw is basically paper dipped in some kind of waxy substance like paraffin, and that becomes this new standard.
RM: And It wasn’t just that it was artificial. It’s also that it was disposable, this straw.
AM: That’s right. This was basically this incredibly cheap, and this incredibly basically disposable, and hygienic thing. It was wasn’t something that came from nature. It was, in fact, produced to a standard. You know? this was a patent straw.
RM: And the fact that this straw was hygienic, and produced to a standard, was important. Because straws were becoming a tool in the emerging public health movement that was happening in cities around this time.
AM: So, you know, the reason public health is emerging at this time is because people in American cities are just like, dying all the time of communicable diseases.
RM: And a lot of illnesses were spread through dirty drinking water. To understand why this was such a big health issue, and why straws would eventually help to solve it, you have to understand how public water fountains worked at the time.
AM: In a lot of places in the city, both workplaces and in public locations, the water fountain wasn’t like what we think of now: Like, this little thing with water bubbling out of it or, like, you press a little button and water comes out. It was just kind of like, water that was sitting there, or a little tap, and you would actually fill a cup that was attached to it and just drink out of it, and it would be like, you know, on some kind of chain or whatever. So, you know, a bunch of different people would all drink from the same cup.
RM: We actually did an episode about this. These early water fountains used something called the “common cup,” and it became one of the main targets of public health campaigners.
AM: There was actually like, one Kansas doctor who started to like, push this campaign against the common cup, and the tone of this campaign? It’s intense! They literally would show the Grim Reaper taking a drink from the common cup with like, a little girl next to him. And you just be like, “Jesus, man, they’re just drinking from the same cup, you know?!?” I guess sometimes when you want public health reform, or some kind of reform, you just need to go for the throat. Like, “This is going to kill your children!” You know, like, that’s where they went with it.
RM: A lot of cities began requiring straw dispensers s in certain public spaces. In the case of the “common cup,” straws were a way to avoid actually putting your mouth where somebody else’s mouth had been. But it wasn’t just public health reformers that contributed to the rise of straws.
AM: There are two things: There’s a sort of public health mania on the one side, and on the other side, there’s the development of a certain, bubbly, carbonated beverage called soda. And the soda fountain occupies this really important place in the kind of, late 19th century, early 20th-century city, just as a space. For one, most of the public places where you could go have a drink were saloons, and saloons were primarily gendered male. Urban women with increasing freedoms in the city wanted a place to go, and many urban women were also involved in various temperance movements. And, again, saloons, they’re serving booze there, and soda fountains become this kind of like clean, healthy, alternative.
RM: So there are all these various trends: urbanization, the rise of the soda fountain, the temperance movement, the rise of public health; they all helped lead to this booming straw industry really.
AM: Yeah, and it’s amazing because if you look at, there’s the Battle Creek Enquirer, you know, a small paper, in May of 1924. They actually list out, how far did this go? How big was this boom? And they say, “Due to the ‘Yankee mania for sanitation’ the output of artificial straws has increased from 165 million in 1901 to 4 billion a year. A manufacturer pointed out yesterday that laid end to end, these straws would build an ant’s subway 16 times around the world, at the equator.”
RM: And so four billion straws. In context, you’re talking about, America has 114 million people at that point.
AM: Yeah, so 35 straws per capita. That’s a lot of straws! I mean I do, I can say I actually, I’m probably like, a 100 straw a year kind of guy.
RM: By the 1950s and 60s, the straw would become less an actual driver of important cultural change, and more this tiny insignificant object surfing along much bigger trends. Trends like, the rise of fast food culture.
RM: Before a businessman named Ray Kroc took over a little restaurant in Southern California called McDonald’s, he was a paper cup salesman.
AM: Which meant that he was also a straw salesman. So, he worked for the Lily Tulip Paper Company for a long time. Like, you know, 15 years. Going around the Midwest selling straws and cups to soda fountains.
ALEXIS: But what’s amazing to hear, you know, and he wrote a memoir, which, I mean, he ran a burger shop and he wrote a memoir called “Grinding it Out,” which I think kind of tells you a little bit about him. It also turns out he also moonlighted as a pianist when he was a salesman. Like, just kind of one of those, like, really doesn’t feel like a 21st-century story. Like it feels like a, “Wow, that’s a weird story.” But Ray Kroc in this memoir “Grinding It Out,” he describes paper cups in this kind of disposable, you know, hygienic world. He was like, “They were innovative and upbeat.” He said, “I sensed from the outset that paper cups were part of the way America was headed.” He was right! Like, that was part of the way America was going. Like we were going to throw away everything. We throw away fucking phones, you know? Like we throw away computers, we throw away couches, you know? So Kroc becomes a central figure, at least in my story, because he sort of connects this paper cup industry to this greater concept of like, disposability in America.
RM: Selling all those cups brought Ray Kroc into contact with soda fountains, and he eventually went into business selling milkshake mixers. This led him to Southern California, where he saw the first McDonald’s in operation. He bought his way into the small company and ousted the original owners.
AM: In the 60s, this is crazy, McDonald’s goes from basically like 100 franchises to 1000, and then just keeps on keeps on going. Pure like, kinda hockey stick growth.
RAY KROC ARCHIVAL: The American public are basically, beef eating people. And it wears well. Day after day, after day, after day, people just want more of it. And I can’t give them everything they like, but this one thing, I sure can give them.
AM: And you have with basically the rise of fast food and suburbia, this massive increase in the amount of just, kind of, wrapping basically for food. You’re getting your food in a box, and that just hadn’t been the way that things were traditionally done.
RM: So like, the plastic industry at the same time is growing up because of this disposable trend. Can you talk about this transition from paper straws to plastic straws?
AM: Yes. One thing that’s interesting about plastics, you know, 1950, the world is only producing like one and a half million tons of plastic. Which of course is a lot, because plastic doesn’t weigh very much, but it’s not. It’s nowhere close to sort of, where we get. I mean, by the late 60s that production has grown tenfold. So, it’s really kind of in the 50s into the 60s where basically people are going, “Is there an object? Maybe it should be plastic.” You know? And so, you know, chairs become plastic, and plates become plastic, and just everything kind of, if you can do it, you could do it in plastic. And so of course straws become part of this.
RM: By the 1970s and 80s, plastic straws had become ubiquitous, they were everywhere. And while straw design continued to evolve slightly, the more dramatic changes were happening in the straw industry.
AM: At this point, both in our economy and also in the sort of, like, the straws history, it’s really the mechanisms that organized the factories that become the most interesting sort of, object. And those mechanisms are basically financial capitalism beginning to really move away from being about family businesses, organizing production, you know, at these kinds of local levels or regional levels, and it really becomes everything is just a… money waiting to be made through financialization.
RM: By “financialization,” Alexis is talking about a big trend in economics that’s been happening over the last few decades. Our manufacturing sector has been shrinking, while our financial sector has been expanding, which has big implications for who ends up making money on straws, and a million other consumer goods.
AM: The slice of money that’s going to the people who provide the money, as opposed to providing the products, is growing. And that has really important consequences for how things get made, and who makes them, and where the factories are located, and how many people are employed. The culture of work, and all these things.
RM: So tell me what happened to Maryland Cup. This is one of the country’s biggest straw makers. What would happen to them around this time?
AM: So, Maryland Cup is this you know, this classic American story, right? It’s owned by these brothers, the Shapiro brothers. They started out as like, a bakery, and then they turned into this kind of, bakery services provider, and then they start making straws. So after they make straws, they make cups, after they make cups, they sort of become one of the big partners for McDonald’s.
AM: And it remained basically family owned. But eventually, you know, the original management is gone, and the people are aging, and they decide that they’re going to sell the company.
ROMAN: They sell the company to another company called Fort Howard.
AM: And they had one of these kind of, hard-charging CEOs. And you know, there’s a great story in “The Baltimore Sun” where they describe going to the sales meeting. You know, the Maryland Cup executives like, all show up, and the new bosses are there, and he literally apparently had a flip chart. And on the one page the flip chart it said “Here are your old values” and they were, “Service, Quality, Responding to customers” and then apparently he literally like, flipped the flip chart to the next page and it said, “New values “Profits, Profits, Profits.”” I was like, damn, that’s quite a PowerPoint, you know?
AM: Maryland Cup had been a very profitable company, with a highly family-oriented kind of culture. You know, the bosses would dress up as Santa Claus, you know, Turkeys to everybody at Thanksgiving, you know? That kind of like, paternalistic, “We’re all one big family company” thing. Once they go into Fort Howard it becomes a true just kind of like, “We’re going to have to make money.” so all these people get laid off, they cut pensions. They do all this stuff that’s basically like the plot of Tommy Boy kind of? You remember that movie with Chris Farley about Sandusky Ohio?
AM: You know but, it’s played out many, many, many, many times. And, in the end, what ends up happening is that Fort Howard itself then is bought by a private equity firm. Who then goes and combines a bunch of the different paper cup and disposable goods companies into one kind of, larger entity, and then spins it out, loaded with a bunch of debt. And this is kind of a classic move that happens in private equity. Because you can borrow against these companies, pay your investors, and then spin out this other company that that is like sort of floating in the ocean like, with rocks tied around its feet, right? So operationally, like, from making cups and straws and all this stuff, they’re still making money. But because they have to pay all this debt, they’re like, deeply in the red. So then they have to lay off people, then they have to close factories and it is just the classic story of kind of like, vulture capitalism. And the fact that the straw, like, the stupid straw, this like, empty vessel, somehow also is tied up in the financialization America just says one thing to me. Which is that every single goddamn thing is tied up with this kind of, system of production.
RM: Can banning straws really make a dent in our ecological problems?
AM: No. No. I mean, it’s just it’s just not, it’s not up to the scale of the problem. You know, I think the through line I see with all this stuff because obviously, it’s hard to connect you know, an 1888 patent to the, you know, first artificial straw to uh, you know, financial capitalism in its current form. But here’s the through line as I see it. The country has shed manufacturing jobs for decades. Straws contribute their little tiny share to environmental disasters that are far beyond it. I mean, the economy continues to work in this way that concentrates wealth, uh, you know, for the very richest people. You know, the sodas that are even like, passing through the straws into people’s stomachs are contributing to this obesity epidemic that threatens to actually roll back the public health reforms that actually got people’s life expectancies to grow in previous eras. And there’s this vast system now that’s attached to the straw, that helped really to create you know, disposable products, and then disposable companies, and finally kind of disposable people. Both the workers who work within the system, but also people who just have to live with all of these crises that have been created by structures far beyond their control. And so it was almost like, though we can all see that going on around us, it’s kind of only when you focus down on like, the most tiny thing. That you can see that massive structure, right? In this kind of very pure way.