In efforts to reduce single-use plastic waste, a number of drinking straw alternatives have emerged in recent years, including straws made from paper, metal and glass.
Paper straws are the most common choice among restaurants — the biggest plastic straw culprits — because they are still disposable.
Unfortunately they have been fairly unpopular among patrons due to their flimsy nature when wet. Metal and glass, while less waste, are not necessarily zero waste because they are not biodegradable, and people have complained about remembering to wash and carry them.
Another solution is urgently needed.
An estimated 170-390 million plastic straws, which are used for mere minutes, are discarded every year in the U.S. and will take hundreds of years to decompose. By the year 2050, it is predicted that, by weight, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.
From this sense of urgency, there have been a growing number of plastic straw bans. Straw-lovers have turned to a variety of solutions, and in Vietnam a new zero waste straw option has emerged.
Michael Burdge, who founded Zero Waste Saigon with his wife, Julia Mesner, admitted, “Plastic straws may not be the biggest contributor to the ocean waste. But it is the easiest thing that people can give up.”
Zero Waste Saigon, a Vietnam-based non-profit, has made it their mission to raise public awareness in Vietnam about the plastic crisis. One of their most notable projects has been partnering with Canadian artist Benjamin Von Wong to create an art exhibit composed entirely of discarded plastic straws. They have been developing sustainable products to sell in Vietnam, including several different kinds of straws.
Elsewhere in Vietnam, a young entrepreneur named Tran Minh Tien founded the Vietnam-based company, Ống Hút Cỏ, and began developing a drinking straw composed entirely from grey sedge grass that grows wild along the Mekong Delta.
A video of his idea, in which he explains the process of turning the grass into straws, has taken off on social media. Sedge grass, locally known as “co bang,” provides an excellent natural straw because it is hollow to begin with. The grass, grown wild and naturally for one to two years, is handcrafted by a group of women residing in the Đức Huệ, Long An province.
They use a sharp knife to cut the grass into lengths between 18 and 22 centimeters. The velvety interior is then cleaned with a piece of metal. They gather the straws into packs of 100 and wrap them in banana leaves to be shipped off. The entire process from harvesting to shipping takes no more than 24 hours.
The straws are intended for single-use at restaurants, but individuals are encouraged to reuse them after rinsing, drying and putting them back in the fridge, where they can store them for up to 10 days. After using the straws, the company claims you can even chew on them to help clean your teeth and gums.
The beauty of these straws is that they decompose naturally.
The beauty of these straws is that they decompose naturally. They can simply be added to compost or organic waste bins, making them an excellent zero waste solution.
Due to the fresh nature of the straws, they are only available in Vietnam, but Ống Hút Cỏ is experimenting with the process for creating dry straws that can then be shipped to destinations further away and stored for longer.
In the U.S., Hay Straws, based in San Francisco, has developed a similar zero waste concept: straws made from straw. When wheat matures, the grain is harvested to make flour and other food products. The stems that are leftover are used as hay for animals or, in this case, straws.
Hay Straws has a process of cutting the materials into lengths, cleaning, rinsing and drying the straws. Then they are packed into cardboard boxes for distribution. The wheat they use is not local, though. It comes from South East Asia, the largest producer of wheat in the world.
While these methods may not be perfected, these ideas are part of what we need right now. Worldwide, we need zero waste straw alternatives for every region. When people begin thinking about their own regionally available, natural resources that could produce a biodegradable straw — and spearheading those efforts — we may begin to see real change before it is too late.
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