In January 2022, Chinese researchers unveiled a new type of edible straw that is claimed to be free from microplastics. The development raises the hope that the ban on plastic straws will finally become a reality.
Although plastic straws are typically short lived, being single-use in both foodservice and retail, the disposed plastic takes centuries to decompose in soil, and can harm marine life if it ends up in the ocean. Researchers from the University of Science and Technology of China claim that their new bacterial cellulose straws are free from adhesives and microplastics, match the performance of paper straws, can be infused with colours and flavours, and decompose completely within 45 days of being disposed.
On 1 January 2021, the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment enforced a nationwide ban on the use of single-use plastic straws in restaurants. This is just one of many steps in the national policy that restricts the production, sale, and usage of single-use plastics. Initially, foodservice outlets across the country raced to comply with the new regulations, unlocking a host of opportunities for reusable and biodegradable straws to ease the burden on landfills and incinerators. With consumers demanding straws to savour the popular ‘boba tea’ and other on-premise beverages, foodservice outlets have begun gradually transitioning to reusable drinking straws made of steel, glass, bamboo, or wood. Biodegradable straws made of paper and polylactic acid (PLA), and edible straws made from plant starch are also being used.
Reusable straws have failed to gain traction, owing to the inconvenience of carrying it around, and elevated hygiene concerns amid the pandemic. The production of paper straws entails deforestation, and the use of a large amount of chemicals, besides costing up to five times that of plastic straws. Moreover, paper straws tend to deform quickly and degrade the taste of the beverage. Similarly, PLA straws have many drawbacks including the low shelf life, high heat sensitivity, the distinct conditions required for biodegrading the disposed material, and the difficulty in separating PLA straws from conventional plastic straws.
Edible straws are thereby the obvious eco-friendly alternative, as its completely biodegradable nature makes it suitable for making food, compost, or animal feed once disposed. Over and above the eco-friendly aspect, as edible drinking straws can be disposed easily without guilt, meaning it will gain more favour than recyclable utensils that need to be collected, sorted, and reprocessed for reuse. This is corroborated by GlobalData’s Q3 2021 consumer survey, wherein 81% of Chinese consumers found ‘easy to dispose’ a quite/extremely important factor in a product, compared to 76% who said the same for the ‘easy to recycle’ attribute.* Moreover, edible drinking straws can appeal strongly to 65% of consumers who find ‘compostable/biodegradable’ a quite/extremely important factor in products.*
Given the win-win attributes of edible straws, the large price differential between plastic and edible drinking straws is the only encumbrance to widespread adoption of these eco-friendly utensils. As consumers are accustomed to cheap plastic utensils, persuading them to pay premium for use-and-dispose utensils, such as straws, can be challenging. In the short term, foodservice operators are poised to bear the cost of the straws, or hide it within the product price. As adoption goes mainstream, the cost of production will decline, thereby making it the default choice of all vendors, large and small.
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Anticipating this inevitable migration to edible straws, China’s State Administration for Market Regulation rolled out the GB/T 41008-2021 quality standard for bioplastic drinking straws, which are set to come into effect from June 2022. China can thereby be the role model for other Asian countries, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Philippines, which have proposed comprehensive bans on straws and other single-use plastics, however, are lagging in implementation.
* GlobalData 2021 Q3 Consumer Survey – China, published in September 2021