Werner's Blog — Opinion, Analysis, Commentary
Plastic straw bans spur innovation and a quest for eco-friendly alternatives

Starting in April 2020, plastic straws and plastic bags are on the way out in Vancouver as city council introduced a bylaw to ban plastic straws. Many municipalities have done likewise, as well as larger jurisdictions such as the state of California, where plastic straws are banned by Assembly Bill No. 1884. The exit of plastic (polypropylene) straws has led to a quest for alternatives that are cheap, safe, effective, and eco-friendly.

‘Plastic straw alternatives are maturing, but more innovation is still needed.’

Replacements broadly fall into two categories: multi-use straws and single-use straws. Multi-use straws are made of durable materials such as stainless steel, silicone, or glass and are most suitably used at home, where they can be washed and reused hundreds of times. The larger market is for single-use straws for use in restaurants, cafes, and other venues. Here, the aim is to find the sweet spot that combines the four objectives. Some alternatives use materials that have issues of their own, and others disintegrate too quickly while in use. Plastic straw alternatives are maturing, but more innovation is still needed.

Biodegradable plastics have made significant inroads because they have properties very similar to conventional plastic straws. Polylactic acid (PLA) is front-runner because this material is made from corn starch. It is bio-compostable, which means its decomposition must meet a minimum standard: decomposition must occur within twelve weeks (84 days). There is also a key international standard for this: ASTM D6400 (by the American Society for Testing and Materials). An important caveat applies: PLA composts well only in commercial composting facilities, not in backyard compost heaps. If not properly composted, it will not decompose in a landfill for a long time (possibly hundreds of years) because of the lack of oxygen in a landfill. It should not be land-filled. The big challenge is then the risk that PLA straws are entering into the residual waste stream instead of the composting waste stream. Otherwise, PLA is a pretty innocuous material because it degrades into lactic acid. It is even used for medical implants such as anchors or screws because it breaks down after several months.

Paper straws would seem like a good alternative, but it comes down to the coating that ensures that they do not disintegrate too quickly while they are still in use. Many paper straws on the market today break down far too quickly, or collapse at the suction end and make them unusable as they get soggy. One maker of paper straws, Aardvark of Fort Wayne, Indiana, makes some of the best paper straws on the market today (the company is owned by Hoffmaster Group, which in turn is owned by Wellspring Capital Management). Business for Aadrvark is booming, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. The key advantage is that their straws are made with more material, so they last longer before they become soggy. They also use a technique to make the paper straws bendable. Canadian manufacturer Green Circle Dine Ware Ltd., owned by Geet Sheth and Wende Serrao, started producing paper straws in Cambridge, Ontario, in 2018. They are trying to get into the market, competing against much larger firms such as Aardvark.

Other types of innovation will also improve the quality of paper straws. Nanopool GmbH of Germany, a family-owned business located in Hülzweiler/Schwalbach not far from Saarbrücken, has invented a coating technique for paper straws that is based on silicon dioxide—it applies an ultra-thin layer of liquid glass to the paper, and the end product is fully degradable. The method is food-safe, but currently there is no information on when these will become available in stores. Innovation like these could help make paper straws much more durable.

Paper straws have some environmental issues of their own. Producing paper is associated with air and water emissions, and the straws themselves may contain chemicals depending on how they are produced. These chemicals can be contained in the coating (such as paraffin was) and in the glue (about 1% of the total material) that is used to hold the paper straw together. Paraffin wax is also made from petroleum.

‘Determining which alternative is most eco-friendly requires a comprehensive life-cycle analysis.’

Which of these straw alternatives is best, all considered? As the choices proliferate, life cycle analyses will look at the total environmental footprint of competing materials. The verdict is out. I am not entirely convinced by PLA alternatives because of the high probability that they end up in landfills rather than composting systems. Paper straws seem like a sensible choice, but they suffer from usability problems that still require improved coating solutions.

What about the economics of plastic straw alternatives? Looking at retail prices (rather than production costs) on popular online stores reveals that price differences are actually not that large. Conventional plastic straws retail for about C$19-30 per thousand in bulk. Aardvark paper straws cost about C$27.50 per thousand. Compostable PLA straws cost about C$22.50 per thousand. So these prices are quite competitive. Innovation and competition in this industry is striving, and bans of plastic straws have allowed new companies to enter into the market and develop suitable alternatives. The plastic straw may be dead, but the drinking straw will survive. It has been said that the first drinking straws were invented 5,000 years ago. It is safe to assume that the market for straws will persist, although transformed by the development of new, better, and more eco-friendly materials.

Posted on Monday, February 17, 2020 at 09:20 — #Environment | #Innovation
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© 2020  Prof. Werner Antweiler, University of British Columbia.
[Sauder School of Business] [The University of British Columbia]