Collection of multi-colored drinking straws

Drinking Straw—Extraordinary Ordinary Things

My earliest recollection of drinking straws was the discovery that I didn’t need them. When I was growing up, my family owned a small restaurant in Southern California where one of our featured items was milkshakes. I used to make my own. I liked them very thick because of the texture and strong ice cream flavor. Sometimes they were so thick that they wouldn’t pass through a straw no matter how hard you might try.

I also didn’t use straws for soft drinks, because I liked to drink them with a lot of crushed ice so that my epicurean palate could be titillated by the flavor of the drink and the prickling of the ice all at the same time.

These were my preferences as a pre-adolescent; however, when I became a teenager, my priorities began to change. This was in the 1950s when television and the cinema were rife with scenes of young amorous couples dreamily looking into each other’s eyes while languorously sipping a milkshake through two straws in the same glass.

I still don’t particularly like drinking straws, but I recognize they do have their uses. And have been serving and disturbing mankind almost from the dawn of time. This is why I believe the drinking straw very much deserves a place on the list of what I like to call “extraordinary ordinary things.”

A drinking straw (or drinking tube) is a small pipe used for consuming liquids. It is basically a thin tube of paper, bamboo, steel, plastic, or other materials. It is used by placing one end of the tube in the mouth and the other end into a liquid.

What is a Drinking Straw?

The physics of its use is very simple. When the straw is placed in the liquid, a small bit is taken into the straw. A combination of muscular action of the tongue and cheeks then reduces air pressure in the mouth and above the liquid in the straw. As a consequence, atmospheric pressure bearing down on the liquid in its container forces it through the straw into the mouth.

In their modern incarnation, drinking straws can be straight or have an angle-adjustable bellows segment. They are usually intended for a single use and then thrown away. However, in this era of environmental concern, several countries, regions, and municipalities have banned or restricted the use plastic straws to reduce plastic pollution. Additionally, a number of large food service companies (e.g. McDonald’s, Starbucks) have voluntarily reduced or eliminated the number of plastic straws distributed on their premises. And the movement against plastic straws continues to grow.

History of the Drinking Straw

Although very much in the spotlight today, the first use of the drinking straw probably pre-dates recorded history by several centuries, if not several millennia. It is hard not to imagine that someone somewhere (and probably many someones in many somewheres) in areas where reed-like plants with hollow centers grow didn’t discover that they could be used for drawing liquids into their mouth.

The first known drinking straws were made by the Sumerians and were probably used for drinking beer to avoid the solid byproducts of fermentation that sink to the bottom. The oldest drinking straw in existence, found in a Sumerian tomb dated to approx. 3,000 BCE, was a gold tube inlaid with the precious blue lapis lazuli stones.

Very little is known about the use of drinking straws until fairly recent times. Argentines and their neighbors for several hundred years have used a straw-like device in metal called a bombilla for drinking “maté tea.” Being made from maté leaves, this infusion leaves a solid residue in the cup, so the bombilla acts as both a straw and a sieve to strain out the residue.

Like so many other things, drinking straws didn’t really become ordinary until the Industrial Revolution made it feasible to design them for purpose, produce them in large quantities, and distribute them far and wide at an affordable price while nevertheless producing substantial profits for manufacturers and distributors.

In the 1800s, rye grass straws came into prominence because they were cheap. However, being made of rye grass, they had an irritating tendency to turn to mush when put in liquid.

In 1888, American Marvin C. Stone patented what may be considered to be the first modern drinking straw. Being made of paper, it proved to be significantly superior to the rye grass straw.

Stone is said to have come up with the idea while drinking a mint julep on a hot day in Washington, D.C. He found the flavor of the rye grass straw seeping into his drink made it somewhat unpalatable. As an experiment, he wound a piece of paper around a pencil to form a thin tube. He then slid out the pencil from one end and applied glue between the strips, making his mint julep and other drinking passing through it considerably more satisfying. Seeing the opportunity, Stone subsequently built a machine that would coat the outside with wax to hold it together, so the glue wouldn’t dissolve into the drink.

But this was only the first part of the innovation. Early paper straws had a narrow bore similar to that of the rye grass stems, so it was common to use two of them to reduce the effort needed to take a sip. Cocktail straws today are often still used in pairs, probably for the same reason. And also probably because they appear to be more sophisticated for imbibing a sophisticated drink.

Plastic straws became widespread following the Second World War, in sum respect reflecting two major changes in American society. The plastics used in their manufacture were inexpensive, and eating out in “family restaurants” (what the French might call restaurants bourgeois) featuring hearty but simple food accompanied by large quantities of non-alcoholic beverages had become increasingly affordable, and thus increasingly popular.

Types of Straws

Different types of straws have been designed for specific beverages and use. For example:

  • Bendy straw. Known in the industry as an “articulated straw,” this type of drinking straw is made with a concertina-tlike hinge near the top. This allows the user to bend the tip of the straw into the mouth to avoid the inconvenience of having to draw up the liquid through a straight straw.
  • Spoon straw. This variation has a spoon-like tip at the bottom. It is often used with slushy beverages, i.e. containing large quantiles of crushed ice. The spoon is used to scoop up the slush and bring it conveniently to the mouth.
  • Wide opening straw. Characterized by central tube wider than conventional models, these straws are commonly used to drink “bubble tea” and similar beverages which contain small solid bits (pearls) as part of their formulation.
  • Crazy straw. This type of straw, made of a hard transparent or translucent plastic, has a number of twists and turns at the top, making it particularly attractive and entertaining for children

To Sip or Not to Sip, That Is the Question

It may seem unlikely that something as ubiquitous, colorful, and apparently as anodyne as the drinking straw could become the subject of heated controversy. But in it did, and still is.

The reason for the controversy is what made drinking straws so ubiquitous and colorful in the first place. For the most part, they are made of plastic.

It is useful to bear in mind that plastic (or rather plastics because there are myriad varieties of them) at their widespread commercial introduction just after World War were widely considered to be the wonder-materials of the 20th century. However, following the success of the epoch-making book Silent Spring (Rachel Carson, 1962) spurring a general increase in concerns about ecology and environmental degradation, focus gradually shifted attention away from the utility of plastics to a significant drawback. They are not biodegradable. This means that once they are used, unless they can be re-used or recycled (both of which are unlikely), they are dumped somewhere and left to continue their existence almost to the end of time.

Plastic straws are no exception. Once used, unless they are re-used (which is not in their nature), they must be safely disposed of just like all other non-reusable plastic products. However, due to lack of stringent laws, lack of enforcement of stringent laws, and indifference to stringent laws, thrown away plastic straws began showing up in socially unacceptable places, such as the world’s seas and oceans. Additionally, when plastic straws are improperly disposed of, they can be transported via water into soil and other ecosystems, where they break down into smaller, more hazardous pieces than the original plastic straw.

Alternatives to plastic straws, some reusable, exist; however, they are criticized as not being of sufficient quality for all users. For example, paper straws are prone to losing their rigidity when soaked inside highly liquid beverages (notably soft drinks) and may not be durable enough for thicker beverages such as milkshakes. Metal straws are more durable, but cannot be manufactured to bend, one of the most popular characteristics of plastic straws.

Defenders of plastic straws also like to argue that alternatives are not as environmentally friendly as they might first appear to be. They cite the environmental impacts of producing paper for producing paper straws and mining for producing the metals for metal straws. Disposable of paper and metal straws after use also engenders environmental impacts.

As different countries become increasingly aware of the problems with plastic straws, more and more of them have been looking at legislations to ban them. However, there is opposition to a total ban, notably from disability rights advocates. They argue alternative materials are not well-suited for use by people with conditions such as cerebral palsy and spinal muscular atrophy. Why? They make several points:

  • People with certain disabilities incapable of capable of washing re-usable straws and would find it cumbersome to carry with them when they are not at home.
  • Straws made from inflexible materials such as metal cannot be easily repositioned.
  • Paper straws lose their firmness over time when soaked in a beverage, making it difficult for people with certain disabilities to comfortably drink.
  • Straws made from hard materials such as metal can cause injuries. A case in point: In 2019, an English woman with a disability was killed when she fell and her face was impaled by a metal straw she was carrying with her.

These considerations, however well justified, may appear to be little more than a sidebar to the principal problems posed by plastic straws. However, historically the first targeted sales of single-use plastic straws occurred in 1947 when U.S. manufacturers promoted them to hospitals. They targeted hospitals because of three main properties of disposable plastic straws that made them invaluable for the care of feeble bed-ridden patients: 1) they are sterile, so there is no risk of infection, 2) they are bendable, so they are more easily maneuverable than straight straws, and they are non-allergenic, so excluding the risk of provoking serious allergic reactions.

It seems unlikely that plastic-drinking straws will ever be banned outright. However, it seems inevitable that their use might be limited to certain persons (the disabled), certain establishments (hospitals, care homes), and certain business establishments under very specific conditions.

Unusual Uses for Straws

Whatever your position on plastic straws and their contribution to environmental degradation, we can all agree that in addition to sipping beverages, straws have a number of other original, inventive uses. Here are just a few of them.

1.   Cherry pitter

Some people believe that separating a cherry from its pit in your mouth is part of the fun of eating cherries. Others don’t. To remove the pit from a cherry before putting it into your mouth, first remove the stem of the cherry. Next, take a thick plastic straw, position it at one and of the cherry, then push it through until it comes out the other side, pit an all. The cherry is now ready to pop into your mouth or, more likely, to be used in a delicious fruit salad.

2.   Strawberry huller

I like eating whole strawberries as a snack. I first pull off the green leafy top, then pop it into my mouth. If a little bit of the leaf still remains, it doesn’t bother me. I also like eating the whitish central stalk.  However, for most culinary uses, it is necessary to ensure that the leaf is completely removed along with most of the stalk.

To achieve these twin exploits, push a straw gently through the bottom, aiming for the leaf at the top. When the straw pierces the top, all the green comes with it and the stalk will be split. That’s all there is to it. Hull a strawberry this way instead of cutting it open with a knife not only saves considerable time and effort, but also more of the fruit.

3.   Wire organizer

As we acquire more and more electric and electronic gadgets, we also acquire more and more electric wires to power them. Sometimes it is necessary to unplug one of more of them. When they are arrayed on a multiplug located in a difficulty to reach location, unplugging the wrong one is an ever-present possibility. 

Take a bunch of straws, cut them lengthwise, and then use a permanent marker to write the name of the gadget it belongs to. Wrap the straws around the wires. If you have different colored straws, you might like to color code your wires—you’ll quickly get used to which wire does what.

4.   Bracelet and necklace holder

Here is a quick and easy way to prevent bracelets and necklaces getting all tangled-up in each other in a jewelry drawer. Thread the chain of the jeweler through a straw and close the clasp at the other end. It may be necessary to cut the straw to the length of each piece of jewelry. But this is hardly too much to ask to be free of having to disentangle pieces of jewelry from each other each time they are to be worn.

5.   Vacuum pack

Storing fresh or leftover food in the freezer often involves using little plastic sandwich bags. Here’s a straw-based tip to store a maximum amount of food in this way. Close the seal of the bag as tightly as you can, insert a straw into the bag and suck out the air. Air takes up space, so with the air removed, you will be store much in more in the freezer than if the air is left in.

6.   Remove bits of cork from wine

Bits of cork that accidentally fall into a bottle of wine when you are opening it can reduce the pleasure of drinking it. To remove these bits, insert the straw into the bottle over an errant floating cork crumb, put your finger over the end of the straw outside the bottle, then lift the crumb out. Repeat until all the crumbs have been removed.

7.   Perfect flower arrangements

Two things make flower arrangements less attractive:  some flowers are two short, and some flowers begin to droop. Drinking straws can be used to remedy both problems:

  1. Even out the height of flowers.  Remove each of the too-short stems from the vase, stick the stems into plastic straws, trim the straw to get the desired height, and then reinsert into the vase. All the flowers will stand straight and tall, and no one will know the difference.
  2. Revive drooping flowers. If your flowers are beginning to droop because of weakened stems, strengthen the stems by slipping them through the straws and re-insert them into the vase. They will now stand up tall and proud, and no one will know the difference.

8.   Adorn bicycle spokes

Children love to ride bicycles because it is an incipient sign of their growing independence. However, after a while their bicycle can begin to appear somewhat boring. To spice things up, cut some gaily-colored drinking straws length-ways and into shorter segments. Then fit them around the spokes. Suddenly an ordinary bike becomes a work of art. P.S. Adults may also find this a fun thing to do.

9. Easy-carry medicines or seasoning holder

Many people these days are on diets, both to lose weight and for medical reasons. For example, a low-sodium diet requires substituting potassium salt for ordinary table (sodium) salt. However, most restaurants don’t have potassium salt. To keep to your diet, fold over one end of as straw and tape it shut, fill the straw, fold and tape this end shut, then stick it into your pocket or purse. It will be small, non-encumbering, and you will always have it with you. The same trick is useful for carrying around special seasonings you like that you would not normally find in a restaurant or at a picnic.

10.  Get thick ketchup to flow out of the bottle

A famous brand of this condiment once advertised itself as the “the slowest ketchup in the West.” This was a very picturesque way of suggesting superior quality. The slower the ketchup comes out of the bottle, the better it is. However, after a while waiting for the ketchup to exist the bottle becomes annoying, no matter how reassuring. To speed things up, insert a straw all the way into the bottle, then stir it around a bit or give the bottle a shake. This simple maneuver will get ketchup flowing almost instantly.

12.  Bag clip

Nibbling on potato chips, corn chips, and other chip-like snack foods while perhaps not the best idea for weight control and long-term health is nevertheless a well-established tradition. Many people buy and consume these snacks in very tiny bags to avoid abusing them. However, this can be rather expensive; two small bags potato chips can cost up to 40 percent more than a single larger bag. Moreover, if they find that one bag is not quite enough, they open a second bag, which they often feel compelled to empty even if they don’t really want to.

So what to do?  Simply cut a straw lengthwise, then snip off the ends so that it is the same width as the bag. Slide the straw over the open top of the bag, roll the top several times, then slide a second straw over it. This will ensure that the bag is securely sealed, maintaining f freshness while ensuring that the chips won’t accidentally spill out.

Straws and Computing

Just like most other people, scientists are not immune to the charm of plastic straws.

Inspired by arthropod insects and spiders, about 10 years ago Harvard University scientists Alex Nemiroski and George Whitesides created a type of “semi-soft robot” capable of walking, using simple materials such as drinking straws and inflatable tubing.

Unlike earlier robots that could stand and awkwardly walk by inflating air chambers in their bodies, this new generation of soft robots are much more nimble in their movements, opening the door for possible real-world applications. For example, it is hoped soft robot could eventually be used in search operations following natural disasters or in conflict zones.

As explained by George Whitesides in the journal Soft Robotics, “If you look around the world, there are a lot of things, like spiders and insects, that are very agile. They can move rapidly, climb on various items, and are able to do things that large, hard robots can’t do because of their weight and form factor. They are among the most versatile organisms on the planet. The question was, how can we build something like that?”

According to colleague Alex Nemiroski, the answer came in the form of conventional drinking straw.

“This all started with an observation that George made that polypropylene tubes have an excellent strength-to-weight ratio. That opened the door to creating something that has more structural support than purely soft robots have,” Nemiroski said. “That was the building block, and then we took inspiration from arthropods to figure out how to make a joint and how to use the tubes as an exoskeleton. From there it was a question of how far can your imagination go? Once you have a Lego brick, what kind of castle can you build with it?”

What they built, he said, is a surprisingly simple joint.

Whitesides and Nemiroski began by cutting a notch in the straws, allowing them to bend. The scientists then inserted short lengths of tubing which, when inflated, would force the joints to extend. A rubber tendon attached on either side would then cause the joint to retract when the tubing deflated.

Armed with that simple concept, the team built a one-legged robot capable of crawling, and moved up in complexity as they added a second and then a third leg, allowing the robot to stand on its own.

“With every new level of systems complexity, we would have to go back to the original joint and make modifications to make it capable of exerting more force or to be able to support the weight of larger robots,” Nemiroski said. “Eventually, when we graduated to six- or eight-legged arthrobots, making them walk became a challenge from a programming perspective. For example, we looked at the way ants and spiders sequence the motion of their limbs and then tried to figure out whether aspects of these motions were applicable to what we were doing or whether we’d need to develop our own type of walking tailored to these specific types of joints.”

While the scientists were able to control simple robots by hand by using syringes, they turned to computers to control the sequencing of their limbs as the designs increased in complexity.

“We put together a microcontroller run by Arduino that uses valves and a central compressor,” he said. “That allowed us the freedom to evolve their gait rapidly.”

Although they were able to replicate the ant’s distinctive “triangle” gait using their six-legged robot, duplicating a spider-like gait proved far trickier.

“A spider has the ability to modulate the speed at which it extends and contracts its joints to carefully time which limbs are moving forward or backward at any moment,” Nemiroski said. “But in our case, the joints’ motion is binary due to the simplicity of our valving system. Either you switch the valve to the pressure source to inflate the balloon in the joint, and thus extend the limb, or you switch the valve to atmosphere to deflate the joint and thus retract the limb. So in the case of the eight-legged robot, we had to develop our own gait compatible with the binary motion of our joints. I’m sure it’s not a brand-new gait, but we could not duplicate precisely how a spider moves for this robot.”

Developing a system that can fine-tune the speed of actuation of the legs, Nemiroski said, would be a useful goal for future research, and would require programmable control over the flow rate supplied to each joint.

“We hit that limitation in the system, which I’m actually pretty proud of, because it means we pushed it to its absolute limit,” he said. “We took the basic concept and asked how far we could go before we would have to make radical alterations to how these limbs work, and we found that limit at the eight-legged robot. We were able to make it walk, but if you wanted to make it walk faster, or to add more limbs—for example, to support a load—you would have to start rethinking the system from the ground up.”

Although it may be years before the robots find their way into real-world applications, the scientists believe the techniques used in their development—particularly the use of everyday, off-the-shelf materials—can point the way toward future innovations.

“I don’t see any reason to reinvent wheels,” George Whitesides said. “If you look at drinking straws, they can make them at, effectively, zero cost and with great strength, so why not use them? These are academic prototypes, so they’re very light weight, but it would be fairly easy to imagine building these with a lightweight structural polymer that could hold a substantial weight.”

“What’s really attractive here is the simplicity,” added Nemiroski. “This is something George has been championing for some time, and something I grew to appreciate deeply while I was in his lab. For all the complexity of movement and structural integrity we get out of these robots, they’re remarkably simple in terms of construction and control. Using a single, easy-to-find material and a single concept for an actuator, we could achieve complex, multidimensional motion.”

The Harvard semi-soft robot project is fascinating in its own right­—and it eliminates any doubt that even the lowly drinking straw can contribute to computing. When I asked Ubiquity editor-in-chief Peter Denning if he knew of any ways drinking straws have influenced computing, he urged me to think beyond the physical. He said, “Programmers who can’t sip their root beer (a very American soft drink) may not be able to sit still for long, hurting the production of software. Without straws, could we ever program?”