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Why straws, anyway?

Straws must meet a user need or they wouldn't be so prevalent.

Photo of Robert Smith
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Drinking straws are hollow tubes than transport liquid from one location, a container, to the mouth.

Archaeological evidence shows that hollow stalks of some plants, such as reeds, were used as straws in antiquity, ostensibly to avoid ingesting the sediments present in some fermented drinks.

The oldest drinking straw in existence is made of gold and was found in a 5000-year old Sumerian tomb. ( "The Amazing History and the Strange Invention of the Bendy Straw", Derek Thompson, The Atlantic, November 22, 2011.)

Argentines use straws called bombillas that contain a sieve to filter out tea particulates such as those found in mate.

The use of natural fiber straws transfers some flavor to the beverage being consumed prompting the invention of the wax-coated paper-wound straw in the late 1800s by Marvin C. Stone.

Straws with bendable sections were invented in the 1930s by Joseph B. Friedman, and found their first sales to hospitals where the patients benefitted from being able to sip liquids while laying down.

Modern disposable drinking straws are extruded from polypropylene (plastic recycling #5).

500 million straws are used and discarded every day in the US (


Today, straws have less to do with filtering out sediments than they used to.  Modern processes have largely obviated that need.  Also, modern materials have addressed issues of unwanted flavoring leaching into beverages from the straws themselves.

I suggest, based on my observations at restaurants and around town and personal experience, that straws are now typically used for the following reasons:

  • To drink from a glass with a disposable lid.  Some lids are designed to prevent spills and so the only access is through an opening in the center where a straw can be inserted
  • To avoid blocking one’s view, either during conversation, watching visual content on a display (computer, TV, movie) or when driving
  • For convenience.  It takes less work to position a glass low in front of you and draw the contents up through a straw
  • To minimize tooth decay.  Straws move sugary beverages past the teeth to the back of the mouth and throat.
  • To avoid spills, either during the motion of a traveling vehicle or when ice dislodges and sloshes a drink on your face
  • To meter flow.  Drinks can be sipped slowly and savored through a straw
  • Medical patients, while reclining, can sip liquids from straws with bendable sections
  • For fun or distraction.  People often play with straws, poking at ice cubes, etc.  Children enjoy making sounds with straws

Alternatives to straws can be explored to address some or all of these user needs.

How does this research relate to our Use Cases?

Lucas struggles with waste, including disposable lids and straws, after enjoying his smoothie (Case 3).

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Products only get used if they meet a customer need. To change behavior, that need must be addressed in a different way.

Tell us about yourself

I am an Industrial Designer with product development experience in the commercial, industrial and medical sectors.


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Photo of juan lambertini

Great research!! And It´s just a straw. I´m from Argentina, and what you say about the metal straw for mate Is true. But there Is more.... We even share the same straw with other people and hundreds of times!!! Isn´t that ecological? At first It´s kind of shocking but then you get used to it...

Photo of Robert Smith

Hi Juan,

Like you, I believe that sharing represents a positive human behavior, and certainly one with a long tradition.

From the perspective of someone who designs medical devices, however, most clients and communities take a dim view of the risks. One possibility is to investigate the inherent anti-microbial characteristics of certain materials such as copper for the fabrication of shared utensils including straws.

Thanks for the comment! -Robert

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