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The Polypropylene Straw
Chris Page

It was one of those cafés this city does so well — modern as a sixties retro theme and as tasteful as a crayfish and asparagus sandwich with mayonnaise and avocado dressing in a triangular plastic package.

The walls were decorated with graphic art — livid collages by local artists and friends of the proprietor. The décor was cheerful without being imposing, there was just the right quantity of green frondy stuff and there was a fish tank in the window that contained some kind of dogfish or miniature shark.

It’s not the greatest place in the world, but I like to drop in here from time to time to recharge my batteries, or kill an hour or two.

When the waitress brought me my iced tea, I put down my magazine to open the paper wrapping on the straw.

‘ Hey, brother, is that a polypropylene straw?’

The speaker was a guy sitting at the next table. He was with a young woman who was presumably his girlfriend and they made a good-looking couple. They wore bold, but well chosen colours and interesting dangling things on their ears and round their necks. She wore her hair long and straight and had a pair of those small, narrow glasses with big colourful frames made popular by that actress on the tv. The guy wore his hair long and straight too, but vertical, just like that actor on the tv.

‘ Why, I think it might just be polypropylene,’ I replied after looking at the straw in my hands. The paper wrap was printed with the words The Polypropylene Straw in soft blue ink and a languid sort of cursive script. ‘At least, that’s what it says on the wrap.’

‘ Wow,’ said the guy. ‘Can I look?’ I passed the straw, half out of its paper, over to the guy and the girl, who both examined it carefully.

‘ Sure looks like polypropylene.’

‘ Yep, it must be.’

‘ What did you order to get a polypropylene straw?’ the girl asked. She was very attractive.

‘ Iced tea,’ I told them.

‘ You mean iced chai latte, or something, right?’

‘ No, just straight iced tea.’

‘ No way,’ said the girl. ‘I mean, if you’d ordered something like iced chai latte or something, I would have credited it, but you got this just with a regular iced tea? Cool.’

‘ What brand of tea is it?’ the guy wanted to know.

‘ Lipton, I guess.’ I looked at the counter for some clue. ‘That’s what these places usually have.’

‘ Do you take it with milk or lemon?’

‘ Both are good, but I usually take my tea completely straight. I like it that way.’

‘ Syrup?’

‘ Not even syrup. You can really taste the tea this way.’ I held my glass up to them as if they could see how good it tasted without anything added. ‘How about you, what are you drinking?’

‘ Capuccino with a good dusting of chocolate,’ said the guy, studying his cup as if reading a script from it.

‘ Mocha,’ said the girl with a conspiratorial smile that I didn’t really understand. I smiled back in the same sort of way, though.

‘ Ah. Hot drinks. No straws,’ I observed sagely.

‘ That’s right,’ said the guy.

‘ Do you think they give out polypropylene straws with all the cold drinks?’ the girl asked.

‘ I don’t know,’ said the guy, ‘but if you get one with iced tea, I suppose you might. It is a pretty good café, you know.’

‘ We could ask the staff,’ I suggested, but none of us did.

In a careful, thoughtful tone the girl asked, ‘What else can a straw be made of?’

The guy and I both gave the question careful consideration.

‘ Plastic,’ said the guy.
‘ That’s right,’ I said. ‘Plastic is your bog standard straw.’

‘ Polyethylene,’ said the guy as if dredging the word up from a great depth.

‘ That’s another,’ I agreed. ‘And, er, polymer.’

‘ Polyester.’

‘ Polyurethane.’

‘ Polyunsaturate.’

‘ How about vinyl?’

‘ Vinyl is more for seat covers and bags. I suppose you could have a vinyl straw, but I’ve never come across one.’

‘ I wonder what it would be like drinking iced tea through a vinyl straw,’ said the girl, and we all sat in silence contemplating the idea. None of us apparently reached any conclusion.

‘ But polypropylene is the best,’ the guy stated.

‘ That’s right,’ I said.

The girl still had my straw, so I was unable to drink any of my iced tea. She gazed at it and asked another question.

‘ What’s better than polypropylene?’

‘ For making straws?’

‘ No. Generally. In the world.’

The girl was certainly one for asking good questions and the guy and I got back into deep thinking mode.

‘ Diamonds,’ I said eventually.

‘ And mobile telephones,’ said the guy.

If we had thought some more we might have thought of other things that are better than polypropylene, but the girl quickly hit us with another of her good questions.

‘ Where does polypropylene come from?’

‘ It’s extruded,’ said the guy.

‘ Extruded?’ asked the girl.

‘ Yes. Created at extreme pressures and temperatures and basically kind of squeezed out into the world.’

‘ Where does this happen?’

‘ Deep underground. That’s the only place that you get the kind of pressures and temperatures where extruding can happen.’

‘ Does this happen everywhere?’

‘ No. Only in a very few places. Under Tokyo, for example. I read in an article somewhere that there’s a huge cavern under Tokyo and the polypropylene straws are extruded from between the rocks in this cavern. If you go down there, all you can see are these millions of straws coming out the rocks, ever so slowly.

‘ Are the straws fashioned out of raw polypropylene or do they extrude just like they are when they come with our drinks?’

‘ They extrude just like they are when they come with our drinks. And you know how some of them have that concertina bendy part where you can bend them to make it easier to get into your mouth? That’s formed when an earthquake happens while the straws are extruding.’

‘ What about the striped or coloured straws? Are they extruded too or are they painted afterwards?’

‘ They’re all extruded too. The colour depends on how much pressure and temperature there is, and what kind of rocks you have just there where the extruding is happening.’

‘ But they must polish them or something if they’ve just come up out of the ground. They all look so clean.’

‘ Oh, I dare say they get polished,’ said the guy, ‘but I don’t think the article mentioned that.’

The girl handed me back my straw.

‘ Thank you,’ she said.

‘ Thank you,’ I said.

I finished unwrapping the straw and put the paper on the table where the couple could still see it if they wanted to. They watched me intently as I put the straw in my tea and sucked. I was careful to show for their benefit how much I was enjoying drinking my tea through the polypropylene straw. They looked satisfied and turned to their own drinks.

There was silence for a minute or two and then the girl said to the guy, ‘Polyester? Isn’t that for shirts and underpants and stuff?’

‘ Now you mention it, I think it is. I may have got that bit wrong.’

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