History of Straws 101: The evolution of the drinking straws through the ages
How is it that a drinking apparatus that’s been around for millennia has been harmless until the last 60 years? Straws are nothing new. They’ve been around forever, enabling friends to gather around milkshakes and making ancient beer much easier to drink. The straw itself is not in question: specifically, it’s the single-use plastic straw we have been with.
Single-use plastics are entering landfills and oceans at an alarming rate that wildlife and marine life can’t keep up with. But when it comes to single-use plastic waste, plastic straws are a particularly harmful one. Their shape makes them predatory to birds, turtles and aquatic life, posing a major choking and impalement hazard. It’s estimated that between 170 and 390 million plastic straws are tossed in America everyday.
Plastic straws are a relatively new invention, having exploded in popularity in the 1960s. Over the past 60 years, these non-biodegradable, toxin-leaching suckers have wreaked havoc.
It begs the question: how did we get here? Let’s take a look through the ages to see how the plastic straw came to be, starting in ancient Mesopotamia.
If you're wondering who invented straws (or discovered straws) and when were straws invented, here are some interesting facts about the history of straws:
There is evidence that ancient Mesopotamians used straws regularly. Depictions from the era show people gathering around large barrels and drinking out of them with 3-foot-long straws. This was the way ancient beer was drunk, to keep the sediment at the bottom of the barrel without disturbing it. Ancient straws were mainly made of silver and gold.
In 16th century Argentina a straw was invented specifically for drinking yerba mate, a popular whole-leaf herbal tea. This special metal straw, called a bombilla, had a large hollow circle at the bottom with holes for straining the tea leaves. This reusable drinking apparatus is still popular all over South and Central America today.
In the 1800s, people were using raw pieces of rye grass as straws to drink spirits and cocktails. Traditional rye straws had a fatal flaw though, leaving a musty, unpleasant flavor in the drink. But as the saying goes, one person’s problem is another person’s opportunity.
Inventor Marvin Stone created the first paper straw in 1890 after experiencing this very predicament. While enjoying a mint julep one evening after work, he took note of the unpleasant flavor the straw left in his drink.
As it turned out, making a paper straw wasn’t too different from his old job of manufacturing cigarettes at a factory. Stone wrapped a piece of paper around a pencil, glued the seams together, and the first paper straw prototype was born.
By the time the 1930s arrived, paper straws were the norm. Joseph B. Friedman took Stone’s work to the next level by inventing the very first bendy straw. While watching his young daughter struggle to drink her milkshake out of a regular straw, Friedman got the idea for a height-adjustable straw. He inserted a screw into the paper straw and tightly wrapped dental floss to indent the shape of the screw on the straw. This allowed it to bend without cutting off flow.
During this era, two things were at their peak: fountain parlors and polio disease. Bendy straws were marketed as a way for people to drink milkshakes and sodas communally without spreading the virus. The bendy straw also allowed caregivers to feed liquids to sick hospital patients.
People were still dissatisfied with paper straws losing their shape in liquids. During the 1960s, multiple straw companies formed to manufacture plastic straws to replace paper ones. Plastic straws could be left in liquid indefinitely without losing their shape. Plastic eventually overtook paper, and soon enough, paper straws were no longer commercially available.
By the 1980s, the plastic straw market had become saturated. There was a lot of competition in the market, and companies had to push new related products to stand out. The 1980s saw the era of whimsical plastic straws. Erik Lipson, owner of Fun-Time International, invented the Crazy Glasses in 1984, an addition to the iconic Krazy Straw. The straw was shaped like a pair of glasses, and the novelty item quickly became popular.
In 2015, a difficult-to-watch internet video surfaced of a sea turtle having a plastic straw removed from its nostril. The video shows animal rescue workers painfully removing a 10-12 cm plastic straw out of the turtle’s nose. As of today, the video has 109 million views.
The video was a turning point in the public’s awareness of single-use plastic. It sparked global outrage, prompting environmentalists to demand that the government ban plastic straws.
In 2019, the European Union voted to ban all single-use plastic, including plastic cutlery, straws and stirrers. The ban took effect in 2021.
Where we are today
While America has made some progress in banning single-use plastic straws, there’s still a long way to go. There is no nation-wide ban on plastic straws (or single-use plastic in general), but the laws vary by state and city. Seattle was the first city to ban single-use plastic straws in 2018. California was the first state to ban single-use plastic straws in eating and drinking establishments in 2019, though they can be given out upon request.
Consult our Plastic Straw Bans list to find out where bans are in effect.
Additionally, many large corporations have independently made the switch to paper or plant-based straws. In 2018, Starbucks announced it would ban plastic straws in all their shops around the world.
The HAY! Straws impact
HAY! Straws are plant-based, compostable straws that can be tossed into the compost bin after use. They’re the stem of a wheat plant, cut to size, sterilized, and dried—no harsh chemicals or processes. And unlike paper straws, they don’t go soggy, no matter how long you leave them in your drink.
Reusable straws have their time and place, but takeout establishments need real solutions too. There is a demand for eco-friendly, disposable straws, and we’re here to meet this demand responsibly. HAY! Straws have had a huge impact on the food and beverage industry. They’ve saved millions of plastic straws from entering landfills, oceans, and yes, sea turtle noses.
To learn more about the effects of single-use plastics, check out this article about plastic pollution and marine life.
Written by Leslie Armstrong