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Why are wooden sticks usually used for ice cream bars?

This seems to hold for every commercial ice cream bar I have ever had, yet I can't find the reason... Why not use plastic instead, for example?

I am not an expert, but I presume plastic can be cheaper to manufacture...

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    For what it is worth, I remember having ice cream bars on plastic sticks. They had holes in the designed so that you could build things with them after you collected some. So it isn’t completely unheard of. – Robert Fisher Aug 4 '15 at 19:17
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    Seems like there's a lot of wild mass guessing going on in the answers. It would be interesting to see a reliable, sourced argument. – user25798 Aug 5 '15 at 10:55
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    @Lilienthal this is why I am seriously considering closing the question. As popular as it is, it requires second guessing the motivation of someone's behavior, and this type of question has always been unanswerable. "I'd love to know why" or "I have a guess which will explain it if it's true" are not good reasons to keep a question open. – rumtscho Aug 5 '15 at 15:18
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    @rumtscho Unless someone's delving into large-scale popsicle manufacture I agree that this question is more theoretical than practical. That said, I think valuable answers are perfectly possible for this question. Athanasius' answer is a good example but relies on the unsourced and doubtful answer by Memj. If someone took the time to contact a major manufacturer for input that could lead to a perfect answer. I would close a question if it invited only sub-standard answers but not for having low-quality answers when good ones could still be submitted. – user25798 Aug 5 '15 at 15:57
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+100

One element is tradition. The popsicle was supposedly invented by Frank Epperson when he left a drink mixture on the porch overnight in with a wooden stirrer in it. (Some historians have questioned this narrative, however, given that Epperson claimed this occurred in 1905 in San Francisco, but weather records show that it never got cold enough in the 1905 winter there for Epperson's story to hold up.) The choice of wood, according to this traditional story, was somewhat accidental, though given that plastics were not yet available in 1905, Epperson's main choices for stirring would probably have been metal or wood. (And obviously metal would be uncomfortable to hold in a frozen treat, regardless of whether this origin story is true or not.)

In any case, Epperson later patented his invention (including the wooden stick) in Oakland in 1923 and started selling them. Again, this would have been too early for plastic to be a reasonable alternative, so part of the reason for wooden popsicle sticks may just be that they are traditional and familiar to customers.

A business seeking to make a change away from such a tradition would need motivation, either an economic reason (a cheaper but still acceptable product) or an actual product improvement. Given that wooden popsicle sticks are intended to be disposable and already function well, economics would be a primary reason to switch, if there were a cheaper material. But Memj's answer is correct here. It's simple economics: wood is cheaper in this case, which is the reason it is used for various small uniform disposable items from toothpicks to chopsticks, utilizing technology that has been in wide use since the early 1900s. (For more information on the reason for manufacturing and process on producing small wooden items cheaply, I'd recommend Henry Petroski's book The Toothpick: Technology and Culture.)

It's also important to note that some businesses actually have experimented with disposable plastic sticks. The most common type were so-called Elsie Stix or Icetix, which were distributed by Borden Dairy in the U.S. They were intended to be collectible and manufactured to be used as toys after serving their purpose in the ice cream bar. (See photos and further description here and here, for example.)

I would note that these sticks easily solved potential problems brought up in some of the other answers: A series of holes allowed the popsicle to be frozen through the plastic and thus added to adhesion. And the holes also decreased thermal mass and heat transfer, which would negate any potential discomfort from holding a piece of cold plastic, which seems to be a strange concern to me anyhow.**

In any case, these plastic sticks were undoubtedly more expensive to manufacture, but they were marketed as a novelty item. And their interlocking nature and use as a toy required people to buy more popsicles to build with them, thereby providing an economic incentive to justify the added expense.

Without such an economic incentive for "standard" disposable popsicle sticks, and with wooden sticks being traditional, there's little reason for businesses to make a switch to plastic.


** More details about thermal properties: While some plastics are somewhat better at transferring heat than wood, there are many types of plastic which would not be noticeably uncomfortable compared to wood in a small stick, even if they were solid. Note that the thermal conductivity of many standard plastics is around 0.2-0.3 W/m-K, only roughly double that of wood, which is around 0.13 W/m-K. Compare that to most metals, which could actually freeze one's hand to them, which have conductivities which are hundreds of times that big. Specific heat is roughly the same for plastic and wood, and the density of most plastics is only a little higher than birch, which is a standard wood for popsicle sticks. Bottom line is that plastic popsicle sticks would absorb heat somewhat more quickly and stay colder a little longer, but not enough to produce significant discomfort for a small, thin piece of plastic.

But, theory aside, one can easily buy reusable plastic sticks for homemade popsicles -- just search Amazon for "plastic popsicle sticks". (Here's a review comparing 26 different varieties of plastic molds, almost all with plastic sticks/handles.) And I don't think I've ever seen a review complaining about discomfort in holding them. I've also seen multitudes of baby teething toys, for example, which are meant to be frozen and are made out of plastic: the idea of a "damp hand freezing" to a small thin piece of plastic seems quite unlikely.

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    Holes also reduce the amount of material required to produce a stick with a given degree of strength. – supercat Aug 5 '15 at 16:54
  • @supercat - yes, of course you're right. And I assume that was one main motivation for producing cheap plastic sticks: the holes save on raw material required. But they also happen to solve a couple of the potential problems discussed in other answers. – Athanasius Aug 6 '15 at 3:58
  • If there's a particularly illustrative part of the toothpick book for this question, that might be a good thing to include - one of the comments on the question seems to think that you're "relying on" Memj's answer to demonstrate the price part of your answer. – Cascabel Aug 6 '15 at 17:20
  • @Jefromi - if I find something better, I'll post it. The book mostly speaks to the general method of manufacturing small wooden items very cheaply, but I don't think it has a "smoking gun" quote about the current price of popsicle sticks. As I said in my comment above, Memj's answer is supported by available wholesale pricing of large quantities of things like popsicle sticks, chopsticks, and toothpicks, where wood seems to be a fraction of the cost of plastic. In any case, I'd guess this is something that's "common knowledge" in the industry, so it's hard to find a source discussing it. – Athanasius Aug 6 '15 at 18:17
  • @Athanasius Fair enough. I'll let you figure out what you think is worth adding into your answer; something about the wholesale prices you've found would be reasonable enough but perhaps there's better things. (I'm deleting the back-and-forth from the question to keep things clean there.) – Cascabel Aug 6 '15 at 18:23
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In terms of bulk price wood is about 3x cheaper than plastic. (I buy both plastic and wood materials for commercial and residential uses in my profession.) Also, wood is biodegradable which makes it safer for the environment if children toss away the stick after they eat the ice cream.

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    That's surprising - do you have a citation for the price thing? – Cascabel Aug 4 '15 at 5:11
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    I wonder if it's partly tradition in addition to economics. In any event, it's not just the cost of materials at play here, but the shape as well. In other words, if wood is cheaper, then why aren't there more disposable wooden spoons? Because wood only works well when the item is uniformly flat, like a stick. – J.R. Aug 4 '15 at 9:13
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    I've seen and used disposable wooden spoons; the main argument against them is that you can taste the wood and it has a pretty big impact on the food's flavour. – Erik Aug 4 '15 at 10:25
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    Also, if in some cases the manufacturing process does actually make plastic come out cheaper, how do you know popsicle sticks aren't one of those things? The fact that popsicle sticks are all wooden might suggest otherwise, but there could just be another reason (tradition, sticking better). – Cascabel Aug 4 '15 at 14:56
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    To add to the discussion on disposable cutlery, disposable chopsticks are almost never made of plastic. Therefore, I believe that the "straight for wood, everything else for plastic" argument makes more sense. – March Ho Aug 5 '15 at 2:55
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Besides the other things mentioned, wood is an insulator and is a poor thermal sink.

To explain -- have you ever tried to hold onto something plastic that's been in your freezer? It can be quite uncomfortable. (as can walking barefoot on one of those new plastic decks when it's been out in the sun).

Wood, however, so long as it wasn't soaked, can be held onto without risking a damp hand freezing to it ... both because it doesn't hold a lot of heat, but because it's an insulator, you only have to warm up the surface to make it bearable.

Texture also helps, in that it can make less contact with your skin, thus reducing the conductive transfer. (the same's true for plastic, but they have to specially mold plastic to add texture, which makes it more difficult to release from the molds)

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    +1: I think this probably one of the more important reasons. – WetlabStudent Aug 5 '15 at 4:55
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    Yes, I've held plenty of plastic things that have come out of my freezer. Unless they are very thick and/or filled with something, it's not uncomfortable to hold them at all. Put a disposable plastic spoon in your freezer and take it out after a few hours. It's not uncomfortable to hold. That's about the equivalent of what we're talking about here. – Athanasius Aug 5 '15 at 7:08
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    @Athanasius I prepared some home-made ice bar with disposable plastic spoons -- they were not quite thick enough to manage the weight and biting forces. So I guess you'll need more material. (Or I need better spoons.) – Raphael Aug 5 '15 at 12:17
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    @Raphael - Point taken. I wasn't literally suggesting making ice cream bars with plastic spoons, though. My point was: with a piece of plastic of roughly that size and thickness, did you find your hand getting frozen to the plastic (or at least significantly uncomfortable holding the spoon), as this answer suggests? – Athanasius Aug 5 '15 at 14:36
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    @Raphael - while you're right, the question is whether the difference is significant enough to cause discomfort. I updated my answer below with detailed thermal properties of the two materials (which aren't nearly as different as this answer claims), as well as a link to a site that reviewed dozens of different types of plastic popsicle molds, most of which had plastic sticks. If you can find a link discussing actual plastic popsicle sticks (which clearly exist) which claims they are significantly uncomfortable to hold, I'd be interested. – Athanasius Aug 5 '15 at 15:12
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I think the ice cream sticks better to wood than plastic

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    Do you have any evidence to back this up? – David Richerby Aug 4 '15 at 9:53
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    @DavidRicherby I think the porosity/porous nature of wood would enhance adhesion of ice cream to it. You could probably have the same effect on plastic if it were poros/rough. Porosity or roughness gives rise to more surface area. More surface area can generally lead to better adhesion. Of course, if the ice cream itself was made of non-wetting substance, irrespective of wood or plastic, you would have the lolly fall off the stick! – dearN Aug 4 '15 at 15:20
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    The plastic could be made textured, but the wood itself will absorb a little bit of the unfrozen liquid, resulting in a tighter bond between the materials. – Joe Aug 4 '15 at 15:46
  • Not scientific but anecdotal evidence; I had ice cream on plastic sticks, and they are far more prone to fall off. – SF. Aug 6 '15 at 13:52
  • I have an answer similar to this, but am waiting for the site to update my reputation in order to let me post it, since @Jefromi locked the question. – andrewgu Aug 7 '15 at 2:15
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It's all about the money. Without contacting suppliers you can find wooden popsicle sticks that come in packs of 500-1000 and the prices range from $0.0055 to $0.013 per stick. Some examples:

The closest comparable item that easily searchable is "plastic lollipop sticks". The cheapest I could find was a 50 pack at $0.0382 per stick, but most were in the $0.085 range:

As for the thermal 'feel' of the popsicle stick, you can find lots of reusable sticks and molds for home use and they are exclusively plastic. I own a set of the Zoku brand and have never found holding the plastic to be uncomfortable after being stored in the freezer.

  • Thanks, this is a lot more convincing about price than the answers simply asserting it. – Cascabel Aug 7 '15 at 15:56
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I think the main reason is for technological reasons:

  • Price (other users says wood is cheaper than plastic)
  • Grip (no one mentioned, but wood should hold ice more strictly than ice: a flat plastic stick will just make the ice slide away)

Regarding thermal sink mentioned by @Joe , I'm not convinced, I remember I had (when I was a Child) plastic shapes to make homemade Ice Lollies, they had even plastic sticks but they were not cold once removed from freezer (unless those had a special plastic and not a common one).

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    You saved me from writing an answer with the grip part. Plastic stick with slightly melted ice-cream means certain drop while wood will not let it slip that easy. Plus it's easier for wet fingers from ice-cream dripping to hold the wood. – CodeAngry Aug 7 '15 at 2:22
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I am not for the bounty, because my answer is by no means complete; but I would like to share my experiences / what I have come to hear with regards to this.

I once had the very same question in mind, while I was at my neighbors during a summer day in the western part of Germany. She had some home-made ice-cream bars for the children. The sticks were made out of wood.

Her answer was simply „Well, it’s just what they did in the old past, with wood; I carved these sticks out of wood from the logs my husband chopped. But how could I fabricate plastic sticks at home, even if I wanted to?“

Another answer I received was from a man, who worked for a candy company in Germany. He was not really sure why, but claimed that one of the reasons is that some ice-cream bars consist of corn syrups and other syrups that are some what acidic; with plastics, no matter how safe they are claimed to be, breaks down over time by the acidity from the syrup and while it is not an immediate health concern, but might be over the course of time.

Another reason he said, was that one cannot be sure what might occur during the course of delivery by other vendors. If it so happened that the weather is hot and the freezer in the delivery truck malfunctions, it would be highly likely that the melted ice-cream would not stick as „good“ when it is once frozen again to a stick that is made out of plastic than a wooden one.

Again, just sharing what I have heard.

Personally, I like sticks that are made of wood. It feels better; and as far as tradition is concerned, it reminds of the old times how people were used to enjoy / make things and the way they were used to cook that was more natural.

  • The second answer seems much more relevant than the first; the OP's not asking about homemade ice cream bars :) – Cascabel Aug 6 '15 at 17:22
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One major factor besides economics which no one has taken up is consumer perception. Even if you use a biodegradable plastic which may have a lower carbon footprint people will perceive a wood stick as more natural and therefore more environmentally friendly.

Which is not to say that plastics have not deserved their bad wrap.

Another issue is the recent scandals caused both by plastic toys leaking toxins and Bisphenol A in water bottles might have made mother a bit more attuned to what their children are putting in their mouths.

Even if the fear may not always be completely rational since the ice cream is wrapped in plastic... People will be people.

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    The anti plastic sentiment is relatively recent and still not universal, so this can't really explain why they've been wood the whole time. – Cascabel Aug 6 '15 at 6:25
  • Well, ice cream bars predate practical plastics - Chris Nelson is said to have invented the ice cream bar with the eskimo pie 1934. Plastic utensils were not common until the 1950s and the introduction of polypropylene. But I was mostly reflecting on the recent change to wood sticks (for which I only have anecdotal evidence). – max Aug 6 '15 at 6:53
  • Polystyrene was actually invented in the 1800's but practical manufacturing processes and an abundance of cheap oil was not available until after WWII. Without plastics than you really don't have that many other choices if you want an extremely cheap material which is easy to shape and will allow ice cream to stick to it. – max Aug 6 '15 at 6:59
  • There is no recent change to wood sticks. They've been wood the whole time, not just the last 10-20 years as people have started to be irrationally afraid of all plastic, but through say the 80s and 90s when everyone was buying plastic everything. – Cascabel Aug 6 '15 at 14:58
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Because plastic leaves behind toxics, whereas wood doesn't.

protected by Cascabel Aug 6 '15 at 14:59

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