Un/Making the Plastic Straw

In connection with the exhibition Experiments for Utopia at Ystad Art Museum, the studio explored, in collaboration with Petra Lilja, the possibility of un/making the plastic straw.

There are emerging attempts to get rid of the plastic straw, at the same time as previous versions of the straw seem to be long lived and re-appear in new configurations and relationships. Our interest lies in both what is made and what is unmade in those proposals for new relationships.

Aftermath

Plastics as a material is associated with plasticity and malleability. It has been used as an alternative for leather, glass, silk, clay, wood and more. Plastics has however not only been used to replace other materials, but also as a material with its own qualities. However, those qualities, of plasticity and control, are challenged today, as it turns out that plastics is a material that is hard to get rid of as it does not decompose. We are today living in the aftermath of ways of living that plastics has enabled.

Plastic straws are used both at festivities and in mundane lives, in particular in connection to food on the go. No matter whether the user puts the plastic straw in a recycling bin or not, they are so lightweight that they rarely stay put  and they are so small that they hardly fit the recycling system. Plastic straws are therefore found in big numbers in urban as well as rural areas, as well as in waterways and oceans.

How can we collectively care for waste that for different reasons do not end up in recycling systems? An emerging proposal is “plogging” – which is a combination of jogging and collecting waste. The weight of making decisions can also be lifted from individual to institutional level where laws can contribute to having fewer plastic straws produced.

Temporality

A strong argument for the usage of plastic straws, as well as other disposable products, has been that it requires less work and care. In many cases it is cheaper to use disposable products than to hire someone for doing the dishes. Disposable products do, however, require work in production as well as after use.

With a possible return to more durable and reusable products, questions regarding both work and care are raised. How does this potential shift affect the supposed care-free living that disposable products have enabled? What practices and artefacts become important?


Illustration: Malin Lobell

Caring relationships

A strong argument for the usage of plastic straws, as well as other disposable products, has been that it requires less work and care. In many cases it is cheaper to use disposable products than to hire someone for doing the dishes. Disposable products do, however, require work in production as well as after use.

With a possible return to more durable and reusable products, questions regarding both work and care are raised. How does this potential shift affect the supposed care-free living that disposable products have enabled? What practices and artefacts become important?

Microbiological Co-living

Straws have been used for different reasons over long periods. There are 4-5000 year old depictions from Mesopotamia where people can be seen drinking with long straws from a large vessel. The straw seems to have been filtering out by-products from the fermentation. Simultaneously it can be seen in the depictions that the drinking was a social action where different living organisms were mixed.

Nowadays, straws are rather associated with individualisation and separation from others and other things in order to achieve hygiene and health. Straws were for example used at so called soda fountains in the US to avoid the spreading of polio and other diseases at those shared drinking places.

Some argue that the separation between living organisms has gone too far. There is research showing that certain chronic diseases are connected to a too narrow intestinal flora. There are also studies showing that too much contact with plastics can affect the intestinal flora negatively. There are those who argue that better health can be achieved through beverages and food. Other researchers are exploring the connection between intestinal flora and mental health. Preventive and healing in the form of, and as an effect of, probiotic food and beverages is highly debated. It is noted, however, that there are already probiotic straws marketed for use by children.

The aim to move away from dirt into cleanliness is argued to have gone too far in Sweden, contributing to vulnerability. Rather, it would be better, they say, to mix with more species, especially in the early years.

How can repetitive moments of communal drinking from a shared vessel effect our microbiological co-living?