After using a new straw, you can compost it in your backyard, or even eat it. The straw, made with seaweed, looks and acts like plastic while someone is drinking, but if it ends up in the ocean, it quickly biodegrades.
Unlike some paper straws–an alternative that companies like Starbucks have been reluctant to adopt because of negative feedback from customers–the new straw, made by a startup called Loliware, doesn’t have an off-putting taste or issues with durability when it gets wet.
“When you think about the large-scale sustainability narrative here, how you get sustainability solutions really adopted at scale, in our view, has to do with not having massive consumer behavior shift,” says Daniela Saltzman, sustainability adviser for Loliware. “Effectively, we’re totally fine disposable products as long as they’re fit for purpose. A disposable product that’s built to last for centuries–i.e., a plastic straw–makes no sense, but one that can be composted or safely biodegrades in the ocean, that’s obviously fine.”
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 obviously has a longer life cycle,” says Chelsea Briganti, one of the cofounders of Loliware. “So there’s a lot of reasons why seaweed, with its regenerative and carbon-sequestration capacity, make it a very promising material for these purposes.”
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. 360 billion plastic straws are currently used globally. Now, as an increasing number of companies, cities, and countries are moving to phase out some forms of single-use plastic, there’s enormous demand for alternatives.
In a pilot plant in upstate New York, the company will begin producing nearly 2 million straws a week. Early adopters, including Marriott and Pernod Ricard, will begin using the straws this year. By the end of 2020, using new manufacturing facilities in Europe, it will have the capacity to produce 30 billion straws, including variations designed for juice boxes, cocktail stirrers, Boba tea, and frozen desserts. The company makes seaweed pellets–not unlike the plastic pellets used in manufacturing plastic straws–and a similar manufacturing process, which is three times faster than making a straw from paper. The company is aiming for a price comparable with paper straws. (Plastic straws are far cheaper, though the company notes that the price of plastic doesn’t include the cost of cleaning up oceans or microplastics ending up in wildlife and food.)
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. 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. It’s also possible to eat the straws, which are dyed with vegetable-based colors. At the moment, they’re unflavored, though definitely edible. “We’ve eaten many straws,” says Briganti, who says that the first straw has a neutral flavor and a chewy texture. In 2020, the company plans to launch straws with flavors or nutritional benefits, like vitamins. “We’re looking into ways . . . to make sustainability more experiential and more fun,” she says.