It’s a fact: plastics have both improved human life and eroded the earth’s ecosystems. Huge gyres of plastic trash swirl in the oceans. Plastic bits end up inside marine life and in those of us who eat fish, and plastic bags wash up on beaches the way seaweed used to. Some American cities have banned disposable plastic bags and water bottles. Now some are restricting plastic straws. Many conservatives call such efforts a restriction of personal freedom, and disability groups have rightly pointed out the benefits of straws for people with physical challenges.

For The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal examines the advantages and ecological problems with disposable plastic straws and recent efforts to curb them. Interestingly, by taking what he calls “a straw-eyed view,” Madrigal shows us how this hollow little tube is a reflection of American economics, history, and the concerns of different eras. The story begins with convenience and sanitation.

By 1911, an industry book proclaimed the soda fountain the very height of democratic propriety. “Today everybody, men, women and children, natives and foreigners, patronize the fountain” said The Practical Soda Fountain Guide.

Temperance and public health grew up together in the disease-ridden cities of America, where despite the modern conveniences and excitements, mortality rates were higher than in the countryside. Straws became a key part of maintaining good hygiene and public health. They became, specifically, part of the answer to the scourge of unclean drinking glasses. Cities begin requiring the use of straws in the late 1890s. A Wisconsin paper noted in 1896 that already in many cities “ordinances have been issued making the use of wrapped drinking straws essential in public eating places.”

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