Science

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

The shift away from plastic straws began in 2018, when a 2015 video 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 in order to reduce plastic pollution, particularly in the ocean where it had the potential to harm sea life.

The trend quickly caught on, with cities such as Seattle and Washington, D.C., banning plastic straws. Several major companies such as Starbucks, Disney and Marriott made promises in July 2018 to phase out plastic straws, with many more joining in the transition since. Recently, entire countries have made the pledge to phase out single-use plastics like straws.

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

But when paper straws were adopted, they too received their fair share of critiques. Avid science communicator Bill Nye told MSNBC in 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 saying, “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 study from 2019 indicated that paper straws lose 70% to 90% of their strength after being in contact with liquid for less than 30 minutes. 

Since then, a variety of companies have sought to market straws stronger than paper but with a smaller 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 began manufacturing PHA straws around April 2021. During this time, the need for single-use products was rising due to the uptick in to-go eating during the early part of the pandemic, and in states where single-use plastic was restricted or banned, restaurants and stores were in need of alternatives. Since then, the company has sold around 250 million PHA straws, according to Patel. Though beyondGREEN began as a company selling compostable pet waste bags and takeout bags, 50% of its sales are now straws, Patel said.

But other straw-makers take issue 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 decomposing in liquid and are covered with a food-grade coating to combat the papery taste of other straws. SOFi straws are now available at over 3,500 business locations in 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 landfill, ocean or soil — they will biodegrade in 90 days.

Leeds added that he does not see compostable plastics as a viable, eco-friendly alternative.

“You’ll see that there’s a lot of solutions out there — PLA, PHA, agave, all of these different bioplastics,” he said. “They’re only compostable, and most people don’t know this. But what that means is it has to be sent to a special facility in order for it to break down, a special industrial composting facility. And if you throw it out, and it ends up in normal trash, it’s the same as plastic.”

Indeed, beyondGREEN’s PHA straws are only certified as compostable in home and industrial settings. However, Patel assured that while ideally the straws would be composted so they can be reused for energy, the straws will still break down in a landfill. 

“It would be like if green waste from a juice machine went into a landfill. It’s still gonna break down. It’s not going to be there for hundreds and hundreds of years like your traditional plastic products,” he said.

In further contrast to Leeds’ claim, Winters asserted that the phade straw not only is compostable but also can biodegrade in multiple environments like soil and oceans. 

Though straws are far from the most significant contributor to plastic pollution (in 2018, straws accounted for only .02%, or 2,000 tons, of the nearly 9 million tons of plastic waste in the ocean), the small plastic tubes have served as a battleground for larger discussions about plastic waste. 

“I look at straws, personally, as the initial step into the conversation of how to reduce plastic,” Leeds said. “I think it was just kind of the lowest fruit in terms of getting rid of bigger pieces of plastic, and just kind of a way to start the conversation.”



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