The restrictions on plastic straws continue to be a very hot topic as many more countries, states, cities and companies are moving away from plastic straws into more eco-friendly and sustainable options to meet their customer needs.

Alternatives, made from sustainable organic material, is becoming more and more commonplace.  One popular freshly made straw concept uses sugar cane or bamboo fibers.

It would seem, on first glance, this is an amazingly safe concept for the environment.  Looking deeper, however, it is not the case.

The issue at hand is the technology currently does not support 100 percent sugar or bamboo fiber for straw manufacturing.  These straws are made by adding PLA, Poly-Lactic Acid, into the mix before the straws can be made properly.

Poly-Lactic Acid has the molecular formula C3H4O2 and is sourced from plants like corn and cassava.  It is harmless, decomposes naturally without harming the environment within 180 days under optimal soil conditions.  PLA makes an excellent plastic substitute because of these qualities.

It does not mean sugar cane or bamboo fiber straws are safe to dispose at will thinking they will decompose properly back into the soil.

PLA needs optimal soil conditions – temperature, depth and moisture all have to be within certain tolerances for the PLA to decompose properly and within a certain time.  If these straws are left on the ground or not properly disposed of, animals, in particular sea life, are likely to consume the straws.

There are two proper ways to recycle these sorts of straws:

  1. Incineration – PLA is often burnt because many countries have not established a decomposition system appropriate for PLA.  These straws join plastic straws in the fire, rendering their usefulness in decomposition moot.
  2. Food waste treatment – Starbucks and the McDonald’s chains are taking steps towards this already.  The Starbucks transparent coffee cup and McDonald’s salad boxes can be used in waste treatment – provided the systems are appropriately classified.  Straws made with PLA and ordinary plastic straws are very similar to the human eye and are indistinguishable to all but those trained to notice.

PLA – recyclable or not

PLA can be recycled, and many companies have made attempts to do so.  However, the characteristics necessary for decomposition to happen mean long term storage is not feasible.  As partial decomposition happens in collection and storage, additional PLA is necessary to balance the decomposition process, and this is an increased cost that many companies see as wasteful.  In the end, it is more cost-effective not  to recycle the PLA at all.

PLA and PET, common soda bottles are made with PET, are very similar, and many recycling processes combine the two for recycling.  This causes issues with the recycling machinery and PET resale value.  In the worst of situations, the entire recycling amount is thrown away and destined for a landfill.

The garbage recycling industry has stipulations that forbid mixing PLA with general plastic, but again, those who are not specifically trained to find PLA will not recognize the difference.  The time necessary to determine if PLA is in a recyclable product or not is feasible or profitable.  The decision means PLA is found throughout with few to no people able to distinguish properly between PLA and other plastics.

PLA is not the problem.  Some countries lack the technology necessary to sort PLA from other plastics.  It is a decision that many will have to make as petroleum resources, necessary for plastic, is limited.  Plant based plastics, like PLA, are the wave of the future.  Encouraging the development, research and sustainability of PLA is important.

PLA is harmless by itself, but if PLA becomes litter, the entire point of watching and caring for the environment is as wasteful as the litter itself.

Sugarcane and bamboo fiber straws do contain some PLA.  A recent study from the German Federal Institute of Risk Assessment (BfR) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) determined food contact at high temperatures does release melamine and formaldehyde.  Melamine can damage the reproductive and urinary systems, while formaldehyde can irritate the skin and mucous membranes and even induce cancer. 

Based on these research findings, Sourcing Nova does not provide sugarcane or bamboo fiber straws to its customers.  If you are looking to supply your business with either, Sourcing Nova strongly recommends reconsidering a different eco-friendly straw.  Contact us for options.  We have many manufacturers who can meet your specific needs.