How are bendy straws made?

There are some products in the annals of Things People Thought Of that seem, superficially, to be simple -- but actually underlie a rather complicated process of engineering. Think, perhaps, of the self-balancing unicycle. Seems easy to make a wheel stand up straight, but try it at home and you'll end up cursing yourself -- and science.

The bendy straw is not one of those deceptively simple things. It is, in fact, just plain simple.

A straw that can bend or flex -- and make that familiar upside-down L shape that is so much more fun to drink out of than any straight straw -- is created quite easily. But like many "oh, duh" inventions, don't be fooled: It might just be that its straightforwardness leaves you even more appreciative of how cool it is.

First, let's start with a little background on the straw in general. We don't know who first decided that sucking liquid would add some fun to drinking, but the earliest evidence of straws was found in a Sumerian tomb, dating to around 3000 B.C. [source: Thompson]. People used a huge variety of materials for straws through history -- from paper to gold. It was in the 1880s in Washington, D.C., that Marvin Stone finally got sick of the flaking, flimsy ryegrass straw popular at the time and patented a wax-paper solution.

But it was San Francisco inventor Joseph Friedman who bent the straw to our will. More to the point, he bent it to help out his young daughter, who was having trouble getting her milkshake to her mouth from the soda-fountain counter where they sat in the 1930s. In what may be the most maddeningly practical action that went on to make millions, the father Friedman took his daughter's paper straw and inserted a screw about a third of the way down the neck. He wrapped dental floss -- seriously, this guy was handy -- around the outside, making indentations from the corrugated rings, and then slid the screw out. A neat accordion-like pattern remained in the straw, ready to bend this way or that to reach the lips of the hungry kid. He'd go on to patent and produce his nifty invention.

Yup, it was that easy. But let's take a closer look at how flexible straws -- and all their iterations -- are made today.

You can get straws in a wide assortment of colors and materials these days. Bamboo, glass and metal ones are happy to help you sip beverages to your heart's content.

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Bend It Like Friedman

Wax paper straws are generally a thing of the past. Now, manufacturing of straws is mostly done with plastics. A plastic resin powder (mixed with additives like colorants) is first melted and made into pellets. (The pellets are easier to mold than the initial powder.) The pellets are dried and cooled, and then are off to another hopper, where they are again heated, to about 500 degrees F (260 degrees C), and melted into a liquid. The resin is extruded into the shape of a long tube, and might be pushed through by a counterintuitively named "puller" that helps it keep its shape as it takes a cooling water bath.

Crazy straws -- that is, the ones with loops and turns that resemble a wacky roller coaster -- will go through molding equipment before their water bath to get their shape.

Flexible straws with that accordion bend near the top are done a little differently. After the straws are cooled and cut, they're directed into trays with individual slots. Pins with rings carved into them are then inserted into the straws, and the pins move the products into parallel "jaws," that are clamped along the neck of the straw. The clamping of the jaws creates the corrugation for the flexible straw (without, of course, crimping the straw completely shut). Then off to packaging the straws go.

The industry seems to be moving at a clip; in 2010, Tetra Pak Tubex in Virginia made about 4 billion straws, and had plans to increase production speed even more [source: Blackwell]. But there's also greater interest in alternatives to plastic straws these days. You can easily find metal and bamboo straws, as well as bent glass straws, which are presumably molded to their L-shape when the material is heated. Don't attempt to straighten and unstraighten a bent glass one though, unless you want to break it.

Or you can go really retro and make your own wax paper straws. Just keep a screw and same dental floss handy, and voila -- your very own American invention.

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Author's Note

The next time you're at a bar and need to impress someone, pull the straw out of their whiskey and soda, regaling them with the story of Joseph Friedman's invention. Not only will you get props for engaging anecdotes, but you might even find a way to get a free drink out of it.

Sources

  • Blackwell, John Reid. "VA plant produces 4B drinking straws annually." Manufacturing.net. Dec. 13, 2010. (Feb. 3, 2013) http://www.manufacturing.net/news/2010/12/va-plant-produces-4b-drinking-straws-annually
  • Broda-Bahm, Chris. "The straight truth about the flexible drinking straw." Smithsonian.org. 2002. (Feb. 6, 2013) http://invention.smithsonian.org/resources/online_articles_detail.aspx?id=301
  • Riley, Marianne. "Joseph B. Friedman Papers." Smithsonian Center Archives. Sept. 17, 2009. (Feb. 13, 2013) http://amhistory.si.edu/archives/d8769.htm
  • Schueller, Randy. "Drinking Straw" MadeHow.com. 2013. (Feb. 3, 2013) http://www.madehow.com/Volume-4/Drinking-Straw.html
  • Thompson, Derek. "The amazing history and the strange invention of the bendy straw." The Atlantic. Nov. 22, 2011. (Feb. 3, 2013) http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/11/the-amazing-history-and-the-strange-invention-of-the-bendy-straw/248923/