A plant-based alternative to plastic straws

With Canadians set to ban single-use plastics by 2022, products made of cellulose — a major component of plants — could be the ideal alternative
Photo credit: TreeMaTech

Researchers from McGill and Lakehead Universities are on a mission to replace the everyday single-use straw. 

Mostly made of plastic, straws are on the chopping block in Canada as the country aims to ban single-use plastics by 2022. While replacements for plastic bags and packaging already exist, the most common alternative to a plastic straw is a paper one, especially in commercial establishments like restaurants. 

So Theo van de Ven, Jean-Philip Lumb and Md Nur Alam got to work, designing a prototype drinking straw made from cellulose. The trio created TreeMaTech, a startup company, to form their prototype from a material they’ve dubbed ‘Cellophax.’ 

“The main component is cellulose, slightly-modified chemically,” says van de Ven about the prototype. “Other components are a plasticizer and a food dye [for coloured straws].”

Cellulose is a molecule consisting of hundreds and sometimes thousands of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. It’s the main substance in the walls of plant cells, helping plants to remain stiff and upright. Van de Ven says one of the many benefits of cellulose straws over a paper alternative is that they don’t disintegrate when you’re trying to use them.

“Paper straws get soggy when wet,” says van de Ven. “Our straws don’t. They can even be used for hot drinks.”

The straws are both biodegradable and recyclable — they can be thrown away after use, or dissolved in an alkaline solution to make new straws or other cellulose-based products. They aren’t yet commercially available, but van de Ven says they think the straws could be made in bulk for about half a cent each. 

For TreeMaTech, “they sky’s the limit,” says van de Ven, pointing to future work replacing plastics in all kinds of things, from bags and bottles to gloves and cups. 

Learn more about TreeMaTech and what they’re up to with plastic replacements.