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Are biodegradable plastic straws a better alternative to paper straws?

Published Feb 15, 2019


Cape Town - A viral video last year caused a massive drinking straw debate and resulted in global companies ditching plastic straws.

The YouTube video, Straw in Turtle’s Nose, was filmed by Christine Figgener, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University, in 2015. The footage, and many others like it, was a stark reminder of the detrimental effects plastic pollution has on the oceans, and had people calling for better alternatives in order to save the turtles and seas.

Fast food company Famous Brands also came out saying that plastic straws will be removed and replaced in all its stores across South Africa and the UK by December 2018. Its restaurants will now use paper straws.

The group’s brands portfolio comprises 25 restaurant brands - including Steers, Wimpy, Debonairs, Mugg & Bean among others - represented by a network of 2874 restaurants across South Africa, the rest of Africa, the Middle East and the UK.

Food Lover’s Market also came out and renounced plastic straws.

While these companies, and many others, have taken to using paper straws as an alternative, the public has been less enthusiastic about it.

Justin Heunis, (@jaysqueezi): “I love saving the environment and helping turtles but paper straws? Na fam, do better.”  

Paper straws are the worst thing since unsliced bread

— Tom (@OveratedLama) February 11, 2019

Jamal-Dean Grootboom: “Paper straws are the devil and are not the answer. There's nothing more annoying than having a drink and your straw disintegrates in front of your eyes. Hopefully biodegradable straw replaces this horrible alternative.”  

Dr Julian Mafokeng, a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at the University of the Free State, said it’s a great idea to change from using fuel/oil-based polymer straws to paper straws, but highlights the problem is the manner in which paper straws are engineered, and the quality thereof.

“The problem starts when you immersed the paper straw in a drink or shake, it absorbs liquid very fast, and deforms, and the worst part is that it then changes the taste of the drinks going through it. I believe that paper straws can still be used, but research has to be done in order to make materials that absorbs less, and have no reaction with the liquids,” Dr Mafokeng said.

“Alternatively biodegradable plastics/polymers can be used to make straws that look and feel exactly the same way as our existing fuel based/petroleum based, non-biodegradable plastics. In fact the straws made from a biodegradable polylactic acid (PLA) polymer/plastic are already available on the market.

“PLA is a plastic made from corn starch, that is fermented and plasticised. I have worked with PLA on my past research, comparing it with non-biodegradable petroleum based polypropylene (PP), in order to see if it could be are placement in short shelf life applications. I have found out that it can degrade completely in hot water at 80°C in 10 days, and it can also decompose when it is buried under the soil over time, unlike PP which does not biodegrade at all,” Dr Mafokeng said.

Project Manager for Circular Plastics Economy at WWF South Africa, Lorren de Kock, stated that when it comes to straws, the WWF suggests losing them entirely.

"Arguments about alternatives should rather look systemically at the issue as to why are straws needed. Straws are needed by the elderly or young children and in both cased these are durable straws built into the cup or drinking device.  For specific beverages like cocktails or smoothies where the straw is part of the product the alternative could be simply drinking out of the cup or using a spoon (not disposable) if required."

File Picture: AP Photo/Barbara Woike

.De Kock adds that each of the alternative materials used for straws – which are numerous – has advantages and disadvantages. 

"Metal and bamboo both have their disadvantages when seen through a life cycle perspective.  Mining and beneficiation of more metals and clearing virgin land for bamboo plantations is also not ideal but at this stage is a more sustainable option than plastic when it comes to end of life. 

"Paper, on the other hand, has a ‘fit for purpose’ problem and again paper from trees requires more timber plantations leading to potential land use change, water depletion, pesticide pollution etc. From a South African perspective it is also important to know where these alternative straws are sourced – and all of them (metal, bamboo and paper) are imported at this stage which impacts on job creation and local investment," she said.

De Kock adds that biodegradable straws are then put forward as the ‘best’ alternative, but it is extremely important to understand under what circumstances these straws actually biodegrade.  

"It should be noted that most plastics labelled as “compostable” or “biodegradable” only degrade in conditions found in industrial composting facilities (i.e. at temperatures above 50°C) and do not degrade significantly faster than conventional plastics in home composting facilities or if littered. Furthermore, few (if any) plastics labelled as biodegradable will break down significantly faster than conventional plastics in the marine environment. 

"This means that for compostable or biodegradable plastics to achieve their environmental benefits, infrastructure and systems need to be in place to not only compost the plastics, but also to collect them and transport them to the composting facilities.  This infrastructure and collection system is currently not available in South Africa and therefore biodegradable or compostable straws are not a viable option currently and the risks outweigh the benefits."


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