By Gregory Furgala
In 2015, a German marine biologist filmed a distressed sea turtle as it yawned and hissed while, off-screen, a small cadre of people speculated about what was stuck up its nose. Armed with pliers, one person pulled at the tip of the protrusion while others held the turtle down. Eventually they learn it’s a plastic straw, and in fits, starts and no small amount of discomfort for the turtle, yank it loose.
Since being uploaded to YouTube in August 2015, the video has generated more than 33 million views and is loosely credited with sparking the now familiar call to ban plastic straws that several restaurant chains and independent operators have eagerly taken up. McDonald’s, whose single-use plastic waste Greenpeace noted was amongst the most frequently collected during cleanups, announced it would start looking for sustainable alternatives. A&W Canada recently announced that it’s leaving plastic straws behind as well, and Starbucks intends to abandon plastic straws by 2020. Against the whole of climate change, the real impact of eschewing the straw is debatable, but it has nonetheless become the focal point of the fight against single-use plastics. And hey, it couldn’t hurt.
Even in the face of environmental catastrophe, however, human behaviour is difficult to change. People still prefer straws — some people with disabilities need them — and while metal, paper and silicone straws have received some attention, none have caught on. The writing is on the wall: a new solution is needed. Stone Straw, a straw manufacturer since 1888, took up the challenge, and like the latest food trend, Stone went plant-based.
“This one is from corn,” says Looy, speaking of Stone’s Back to Earth line. “Anything can be derived from any plant that excretes sugar, so it could be from beets, it could be from maple — we’re all familiar with that in Canada. Any high sugar plant could be used.”
Tasty as maple syrup is, corn makes far more sense. It’s the world’s most-cultivated crop, and Stone isn’t actually manufacturing the raw material. Stone’s Back to Earth straws are made from German chemical manufacturing giant BASF’s Ecovio bioplastic, a polylactic acid (PLA) that’s derived primarily from corn (although other plant-sugars are used, too). Ecovio is industrially compostable, meaning that microorganisms will break it down into organic matter in as little as three months if provided the favourable environment created by an industrial composting facility. Before breaking down, it looks, feels and performs like normal plastic. Afterwards, it’s organic mulch.
“We’re polluting our oceans and waterways with plastic,” laments Looy. In his telling, the video and available alternative prompted Stone executives to say to each other, “‘You know what? This thing, this straw, is causing mother nature to collapse on itself. So let’s create something that will be much better for it.'”
New Plastic, New Problems
Ecovio isn’t a perfect solution, though. Industrial compost facilities are unnaturally warm. Outside of that environment, it can still take ages for bioplastic to break down — if it will at all — so that turtle might’ve choked on a straw whether it was regular plastic or not. The human element is still very much present with bioplastic straws because they have to be correctly diverted at the source, i.e. the foodservice staff tossing them out after they’ve been used. Critics also point to the increased land and water bioplastic demands, which are associated with problems like over-fertlization and drought.
Infrastructure is the next hurdle. Looy says Stone’s Back to Earth straws cost three to four times as much as conventional plastic straws, and that’s largely due to larger systemic problems. Bioplastic makes up only 0.2 per cent of the global polymer market, and food-grade PLA is currently a high-demand item with lagging supply.
Despite its problems, however, bioplastic like Ecovio has its share of hard advantages. It significantly reduces the production of greenhouse gas and decreases the use of non-renewable energy. Produced in tandem with sustainable agriculture, bioplastic’s environmental impact could be mitigated further. Moreover, human behaviour isn’t immutable (our collective commitment to straws notwithstanding). It wasn’t long ago that nobody recycled; now, households in every major Canadian city have blue bins. Educating the the public, foodservice front-liners included, about what to dispose of where isn’t impossible, and neither is getting them to follow through on the lesson. And even with the price increase, it’s still only about one or two cents per straw, which even in the margin-starved restaurant industry is unlikely to break the camel’s back. As the market matures and infrastructure catches up, Stone anticipates that it’ll drive the price down.
The Back to Earth straw isn’t an environmental silver bullet, but produced and manufactured correctly, it could still be an effective tool against global warming. Disposed of correctly, it could also reduce direct harm to marine life, too. Stone is banking on the continued shift, and the social and behavioural changes that’ll occur with it and make its straw a useful tool to combat climate change. But they’re not stopping there.
“We’re working on something right now, which I’m somewhat considering the Holy Grail, where it’ll be certifiable for both fresh and marine waters,” says Looy. “It’ll be certifiable for not just industrial composters, but also certifiable for landfill, so it’ll be certifiable for the whole gamut of where it might eventually end up. that’s our eventual goal.”
What started with a turtle has led to an industrially compostable straw made of corn — not exactly a linear progression, but it and other bioplastic products are another step toward Looy’s Holy Grail, and large chains are readying themselves to take it, if they haven’t already. Booster Juice is buying Back to Earth, and there’s interest from Dairy Queen and A&W Canada, as well. Small as straws are, they’ve become a potent, ubiquitous symbol in the wending fight against climate change. Best take up the environmentally-friendly version.