As our waterways get further choked with the debris of single-use plastic, there has been a global movement to say that the use of these plastics is indeed the last straw.
But let’s face there are some cocktails out there that are ridiculously difficult to drink without a straw. Yes, the family of Julep drinks we are most definitely looking at you. Any cocktail built on crushed ice becomes, shall we say, hard to swallow.
Luckily, there may be a solution that keeps everyone happy, and it’s brought to us by the humble seaweed.
While many are endeavouring to replace plastic, to varying degrees of success, a start-up called Loliware are creating a food-grade straw, that’s ‘designed to disappear’.
The problem with a lot of other materials such as metal, glass, bamboo and paper, is that they often do not have the same flexibility, durability and mouthfeel of the plastic versions. The company’s new Lolistraw can withstand over 18 hours of continuous use and doesn’t have an off-putting taste or issues with durability when it gets wet.
The material is derived from a form of carbon-sequestering kelp and has come out of an 18 month R&D period with leading interdisciplinary scientists, led by Loliware CEO Chelsea Fawn Briganti.
“The material looks, feels and performs like plastic, but is made from food-grade materials and is ‘designed to disappear’ as it can be composted or eaten,” says Briganti.
If a Loliware straw (or the straw wrappers, which will be made from a seaweed-based film) ends up on the ground in a park, it will biodegrade like a banana peel. In the ocean, lab data suggests that it will break down in weeks, without any harmful effects on marine life.
Loliware calls its products “hyper-compostable” to distinguish them from products like corn-based PLA, which can only be processed in industrial composting facilities–something that most cities still don’t have–and that doesn’t easily break down in the ocean.
Briganti, who was born and raised in Hawaii, has always loved the ocean — but not the volume of plastic that washes up on the once-pristine shoreline. “By 2050, there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean by volume,” she said.
“Every piece of plastic ever created still exists,” Briganti said. “There are five trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans; an estimated ten million tons of plastic produced every second. If we only plan to use something once, why do we build it to last forever?”
Early adopters, including hospitality chain Marriott and beverage company Pernod Ricard, will begin using the straws this year, as well as eco-conscious individuals who supported the company during online campaigns. Next up are more “biodigr(edible)” products intended to replace other single-use items like utensils and cup lids.
What’s LOLIWARE’s biggest challenge? “Moving fast enough to address a problem that’s at such massive scale,” said Briganti. “We’ve developed a solution. Now it’s just a race against the clock to replace the toxic plastic straws polluting our environment.”
As a material, seaweed also has the advantage of quickly capturing CO2. “There’s a whole kelp forest the size of a rain forest underwater that’s sequestering carbon, and growing full-scale plants in four to six weeks, versus a tree that has a longer life cycle,” says Briganti.
As it worked on R&D with a team of seaweed biologists and biopolymer food technologists, the startup searched for a global seaweed supplier that could provide enough material to produce billions of straws. At present, three hundred sixty billion plastic straws are used globally.
The process of making the straws, using seaweed pellets, is not unlike that used for manufacturing plastic straws, but it’s three times faster than making a straw from paper. By the end of 2020, using new manufacturing facilities in Europe, the company will have the capacity to produce 30 billion straws, including variations designed for juice boxes, cocktail stirrers, Boba tea, and frozen desserts.
Loliware is looking to price their straws at around the same level as paper straws. (Plastic straws may be cheaper, but that doesn’t take into account the cost of cleaning up oceans or microplastics ending up in wildlife and food.)
It’s also possible to eat the straws, which are dyed with vegetable-based colours and by 2020, the company plans to launch straws with flavours or nutritional benefits, like vitamins.
“We’re looking into ways . . . to make sustainability more experiential and more fun,” Briganti adds.