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Can drinking straws be "sustainable?"

In the interest of sustainability in food service, and particularly, with straws, we must first acknowledge the initial reason for the desire to eliminate straw usage across the globe. Statistics show that hundreds of millions of straws are used and discarded daily in the United States alone. Most straws are made of non-recyclable plastics and wind up in landfills and waterways, where they can be mistaken for food by marine and wildlife. I don't think there is a person who has access to the internet through a computer or cell phone, who has not seen the heart-wrenching videos of marine biologists, caring crews and individuals painstakingly removing straws from the nostrils of sea turtles who sought a food source by ingesting a plastic straw. Legislation has been enacted to eliminate this danger to marine and wildlife by requiring food service to seek alternative solutions, and the race is on to find the "next best straw."

Having just attended the National Restaurant Association meeting, I saw many such alternative solutions, such as 4-ply kraft paper, various types of PLA and even repurposed seashell content. The interesting point is, a straw by any other material is still.....a straw! And straws will always look like a food source to marine and wildlife in waterways and landfills, where most of these will end up, even with the best intentions.

Webster's definition of "sustainable" is: to be maintained at a certain rate or level.

The perception of "sustainability" regarding food service items, is to use new materials, such as wood, paper, corn and sugar byproducts, and even seashells to make a product that can be used to drink through, poke or cut food with and then discard without worry or guilt, because it's "sustainable." Unfortunately, "sustainable" products continue to contribute to the volume of waste, at least for a period of time, and straws made of such material will STILL be mistaken for food by marine and wildlife in the meantime!

Let's take a minute to think about this. Many food services are turning to the "new" PLA materials, which are polylactic acid, a thermoplastic monomer derived from renewable sources. In other words, it relies on the belief that we can grow more trees, plant more crops and hope they survive and thrive through season after season, year after year, enough to make millions and billions of food related pieces such as straws, plates and cutlery. After all, we're eliminating plastic....right? According to TWI, PLA is similar to polypropylene, polystyrene and polyethylene and is considered a non-fossil fuel plastic.

There are four ways to dispose of PLA:

1. Recycling

This is either chemical or mechanical. Waste material can hold contaminants, but polylactic acid can be chemically recycled using thermal depolymerisation or hydrolysis to create a monomer that can then be manufactured into virgin PLA. PLA can also be chemically recycled using transesterification to create methyl lactate. Not all recycling facilities will recycle PLA. In fact, very FEW recycling centers accept PLA for recycling.

2. Composting

Industrial composting conditions allow for chemical hydrolysis followed by microbial digestion to degrade the PLA. Particular enzymes, biological reaction and sustained temperatures above 50 degrees celcius (or 122 degrees fahrenheit) often are needed for decomposition to occur. Even then, it may not be 100% and may take months or even years to achieve even minor deterioration.

3. Incineration

End-of-life PLA can be incinerated, creating 19.5 MJ/kg (8,368 btu/lb) of energy and leaving no residue. Without collection centers readily available, most PLA items will still wind up in landfills, and, unfortunately, waterways. Then there's the issue of how the energy from incineration is collected, where it goes from there, and even finding a collection center or waste management that will incinerate PLA.

4. Landfill

While PLA can go to landfill, this is the least environmentally friendly option, due to the slow degradation rates of the material in ambient temperatures. The length of time needed to compost PLA is minimum 3-6 months in the best composting conditions. Most PLA items will take more than a year. Unfortunately, due to the lack of adequate or plentiful collection centers, most of which have not yet begun to collect PLA items separately for recycling, most PLA products will end up here, in a landfill where they will add to the volume of garbage waste and still look like food to marine and wildlife.


The purpose of the XeroStraw is to eliminate the need for a straw altogether while providing the user with the familiar feel of a plastic straw. With no descending portion, the straw mouthpiece provides a similar, yet safer, experience for the user, by tipping the cup and sipping from the mouthpiece. The height is adequate for nose clearance while giving an unobstructed view of the surroundings while drinking a beverage. Walking, driving, riding a bike while consuming beverages with a XeroStraw is much safer than with a regular straw because there is no resistance coming from the bottom of the beverage container, should the user hit a bump, trip or just miss the mouth! Made in the USA from FDA approved recycled plastics, the XeroStraw is 100% recyclable!

With an ever increasing awareness and acceptance of the environmental responsibility of recycling, many food service locations have incorporated recycling bins for readily recyclable plastics, such as #1 polyethylene, which is what most water bottles are made from, and is quickly becoming a favorite material for "to go" cups. Reusing plastics is also encouraged and the durable XeroStraw can be cleaned easily and used indefinitely after the initial use. If it is eventually recycled, the material will find its way to be made into more ....XeroStraws! What could be better? No trees, crops or shell homes are endangered in the making of a XeroStraw. In fact, using a Xerostraw actually helps remove plastics BEFORE they enter the waste stream!

We've all heard the saying that if we're not part of the solution, we're part of the problem. The XeroStraw IS a solution to the problem of plastic waste! Let's all work together to be part of the solution and to help make our world better than we found it... one sip at a time.

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