The Last Straw
Back when yours truly was just a little Curmudgeon (this was in the olden days, when years still began with the numeral 1), a lot of things were different. Some of those differences had to do with—of all things—water, specifically the kind you drink. It used to come straight from the tap. (In fact, we scoffed when people first started trying to sell it in bottles. How silly. It was like selling air . . . which might turn out to be the next natural resource we have to purchase.) And back then, restaurant patrons were accustomed to being served the stuff shortly after being seated. This practice required no discussion whatsoever; it was de rigueur. The patron didn't need to request it; the waiter didn't need to inquire whether it was desired. This complimentary beverage was presented in a glass, with ice. And the way it worked, you see, was this: people would lift the glass to their lips, and drink it. No one really thought much about the procedure.
But at some point, for reasons I can't quite fathom, restaurants began serving water with straws. These days, they're delivered automatically whenever water is served. And so, while the water has become something diners must now request, straws have become the presumed glass-to-mouth delivery system of choice. And thus, as is too often the case here in my Curmudgeon Den, I find myself with a rapidly growing headache from an exhausting and futile endeavor to make sense of the senseless.
Ask anyone to explain why straws have become the new norm and they'll probably tell you about the sanitary advantages. Straws—individually wrapped for your protection—allow drinkers to avoid an untold number of health hazards. Put your actual lips to an actual water glass, they'll warn, and you expose yourself to all manner of potential germs. It's far too risky; you don't know where that glass has been.
Let's reflect, may we? Do you ever use coffee cups in restaurants? How about wine glasses? You touch those to your lips, do you not? Are they somehow more sanitary than water glasses? And how about forks and spoons? You'll use them, right? Those go all the way into your mouth, after having been in the mouths of countless diners before you. And before they were set on your table, they were handled by someone who may or may not have washed his hands. It seems to me a great act of faith to assume that every piece of tableware is completely trustworthy save one: the poor maligned water glass. It seems that only this item is suspect, calling for the protection that only a plastic tube can provide. And that thinking simply doesn't pass the logic test. The restaurant staff is either cleaning things properly or they are not.
I have heard one alternate explanation. On one occasion, I was told that the purpose of the straw was to avoid an ice cube/nose collision. I never realized this was such a problem. How is it that generations of iced beverage drinkers experienced this dreaded nasal contact and survived without complaint? Have we suddenly developed especially sensitive schnozzes? Or has our ability to operate an ice-filled glass—something that, in my day, anyone over the age of five had mastered—been lost in some bizarre evolutionary twist? I believe the answer to be a simpler one: people use straws out of habit and laziness, not because they serve some necessary function.
Now, if I were an environmentalist rather than a curmudgeon, I might, at this point, mention the truly terrible impact of plastic straws. I might tell you horror stories about harm to our marine life, or show you heartbreaking photos of beautiful turtles with straws stuck in their nostrils. And I might even tell you that in the USA alone, 500 million straws are used every single day, and that the easiest plastics to eliminate are those we refer to as "single use" plastics like straws, utensils, and plastic bags. For those who absolutely need straws, I might even offer links to sites where you can purchase your very own reusable one, including one that fits on your keyring.
But this isn't The Weekly Environmentalist. It's The Weekly Curmudgeon. So you'll notice I'm not mentioning any of that green stuff. Instead, my argument against using straws is this: they're stupid. It's stupidity, not plastic, that I'd like to see banned. Plastic is inescapable. Everything is made from it these days—cars, furniture, phones, you name it. And whatever isn't made of plastic is wrapped in the stuff. We even wrap our plastics in plastic. But stupidity can be avoided. So when something plastic also fails to serve a sensible legitimate purpose, there's a case to be made for making the greener and, in this instance, less stupid choice by asking your server to skip the straw, unless you really, really want one. Because I can promise you, whatever germs you think you're avoiding are finding their way to you through other means. It's a germy world. Suck it up.