Beyond paper and plastic, the search for the perfect straw continues

The move away from plastic straws began in 2018 when a Videos 2015 of researchers removing a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nose went viral. Environmental groups began targeting plastic straws and other single-use plastics to reduce plastic pollution, particularly in the oceans, where it could harm marine life.

The trend caught on quickly, with cities like Seattle and Washington, D.C, ban plastic straws. Several large companies such as Starbucks, Disney and Marriott promised to phase out plastic straws in July 2018, and many more have since joined the transition. Recently, entire countries have committed to phase out single-use plastics like straws.

As plastic straws were phased out, paper straws became the quick replacement — the once-unknown product popping up in restaurants and retailers across the country. Fortune reported at the time that one paper straw company, Aardvark Straws, saw a 5,000% increase in sales in 2019.

But when paper straws were adopted, they, too, received their fair share of criticism. Enthusiastic science communicator Bill Nye told MSNBC 2019: “A plastic straw is just better. It just works better than a paper straw.” And the jabs continue, with a viral tweet from last month and said, “I wonder if the inventor of paper straws ever considered that they would be in prolonged contact with liquid.”

The concerns are not unfounded. A to learn from 2019 stated that paper straws lose 70% to 90% of their strength after being in contact with liquid for less than 30 minutes.

Since then, various companies have tried to market straws as stronger than paper but with a lower environmental footprint than plastic – and the Covid pandemic provided a boost.

Achyut Patel, vice president of sales and co-founder of beyondGREEN, said his company started manufacturing PHA straws around April 2021. During this time, the need for single-use products increased due to the rise in take-out during the early hours of the pandemic, and in states where single-use plastics were restricted or banned, restaurants and shops needed alternatives. Since then, the company has sold around 250 million PHA straws, according to Patel. Although beyondGREEN started out as a company selling compostable pet waste bags and take-out bags, 50% of its sales are now from straws, Patel said.

However, other straw manufacturers have struggled with compostable plastics like PHA and continue to push for even greener alternatives, including paper.

One company, SOFi Paper Products, designed straws that were strong enough to avoid breaking down in liquids and covered with a food-grade coating to combat the papery taste of other straws. SOFi straws are now available at over 3,500 store locations across the United States, including La Colombe and Pret a Manger, according to Brandon Leeds, who co-founded SOFi with his brother.

Leeds said regardless of where SOFi straws end up – be it in landfill, in the sea or in the ground – they will biodegrade in 90 days.

Leeds added that they do not see compostable plastics as a viable, environmentally friendly alternative.

“You will see that there are many solutions — PLA, PHA, agave, all these different bioplastics,” he said. “They’re just compostable, and most people don’t know that. But that means it has to be sent to a special facility for it to be broken down, a special industrial composting facility. And if you throw it away and it ends up in the regular trash, it’s the same as plastic.”

In fact, beyondGREEN’s PHA straws are only certified as compostable in the home and in the industry. However, Patel assured that while the straws would ideally be composted so they could be reused for energy, the straws would still break down in a landfill.

“It would be like putting green waste from a juicer in a landfill. It’s about to collapse. It’s not going to be around for hundreds and hundreds of years like your traditional plastic products,” he said.

In further contrast to Leeds’ claim, Winters claimed that the Phade straw was not only compostable, but could also biodegrade in various environments such as soil and oceans.

Although straws are far from the biggest contributor to plastic pollution (in 2018(Straws accounted for only 0.02% or 2,000 tons of the almost 9 million tons of plastic waste in the ocean), the small plastic tubes have served as a battleground for larger discussions about plastic waste.

“Personally, I see straws as the first step in the discussion on how to reduce plastic,” said Leeds. “I think it was just a lowly fruit kind of thing to get rid of bigger pieces of plastic and just a way to start the conversation.” Beyond paper and plastic, the search for the perfect straw continues

Fry Electronics Team

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