Plastic drinking straw has stiff competition

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The humble plastic drinking straw is about to have some stiff competition.

Miles Pepper, a 23-year Sonoma County native, and 32-year-old Emma Cohen, from Santa Fe, New Mexico have invented FinalStraw, a collapsible, reusable drinking straw that comes in a little case that clips onto your keychain or your belt loop.

Funded by a Kickstarter campaign that raised $1.9 million from more than 38,000 early backers, Pepper and Cohen say they already have pre-orders for more than 100,000 stainless steel straws. 

Finding an alternative to plastic drinking straws comes as many American cities, including Oakland, Berkeley, Seattle, Santa Cruz, Davis and Miami Beach, have either banned straws or are considering bans. 

California and Hawaii are also pondering statewide action to regulate distribution of plastic straws, which litter oceans and pose a serious threat to marine and animal life.

On Tuesday, the European Union proposed a straw ban that could go into effect next year. It is estimated that about 23 million straws are used and discarded daily in the UK. 

Even royalty is taking a stand against the plastic straw. Earlier this year, Queen Elizabeth II banned plastic straws and other one-use plastic items from her palaces. 

“There was a growing market (for an alternative) with all these bans, but the solution wasn’t really thought out,’’ said Pepper. “The drinking straw hasn’t really evolved much since Mesopotamia.”

The first known straws were created more than 5000 years ago. The oldest drinking straw in existence, found in a Sumerian tomb, was a gold tube inlaid with the precious blue stone lapis lazuli.

These days, straws are typically made from polypropylene, and do not biodegrade in the environment. 
 Anti-straw advocacy groups have estimated that every day, about 500 million straws are used—and discarded --in the United States alone. That’s enough straws to wrap around the Earth twice. 

Some of those straws ended up in Pepper’s running path in Los Angeles last year.

“I’d be out running and I’d find plastic straws on the ground, in the gutters, in the streets, and on the sidewalks,’’ he said. “And then it rained and all the straws disappeared. That’s what got me thinking about having a reusable straw.”

Pepper came up with a design, filed for patent rights and then a mutual friend introduced him to Cohen, who was completing her master’s degree in sustainability from Harvard University and had done a Tedx Talk on plastic straws. 

“The stars just sort of aligned,’’ said Pepper, who is traveling to China next week to check out factories for straw production. 

The FinalStraw isn’t the only alternative to plastic straws. Some paper straws, which decompose in 45 to 90 days, are also widely available at major retailers. Straws made of bamboo, glass and even straw straws are also on the market. 

In response to negative attention on plastic straws and the increasing number of bans, the plastic industry is advocating the importance of recycling.

"The focus on single-use products like straws shouldn’t be whether we have them or not but instead that they are disposed of properly," the Plastics Industry Association says on its website. "The real challenge is making it easier for everyone to better dispose of straws and other single-use products by enhancing our recycling and recovery technologies."