By Samantha Lees
The humble plastic straw has become a symbol of the war against single-use plastic ever since a video of a straw being removed from a sea turtle’s nose went viral on the internet. Yet the various alternatives pose other problems for food service providers, paper straws collapsing into mush half way through customers’ drinks, the difficulty of cleaning reusable steel or bamboo straws and the associated hygiene concerns, and significant (yet common) misconceptions about the so-called ‘eco-alternatives’ to plastic products. We spoke to Don Wan, founder of Soilable, about redefining the straw.
“We are making the Tesla of straws.”
“Tesla is redefining the car. We are doing something similar to straws. We aim to change people’s views on recycling and eco-friendly materials.” Starting with straws, Soilable produces disposable products for the food and beverage industry that are 100% recyclable. For Don, the straw is more than just for sipping drinks, it’s a tool to correct people’s misconceptions towards recycling. Though Don’s journey began whilst the sea-turtle was a hot topic, he was also spurred on by the ongoing issue of how misleading some so-called ‘sustainable’ products can potentially be. “A paper straw that’s coated in ‘eco-friendly additives’ (such as bio-polymers) is still going to be harmful to the turtle when it ends up in the ocean.” So how can we make a straw that will last in a drink for several hours, yet does not cause harm when it ends up in the ocean, and is still cheap and readily available? The result was a reinvented paper straw.
Conventional Paper Straws VS Soilable Straws
“A lot of people think that (conventional) paper straws are recyclable because they’re made of paper – but that’s a huge misunderstanding.” The conventional paper straw uses three to five layers of paper, which is wound and coated in glue. The glue and the use of wet-strength paper (the same kind of paper used for beer bottle labels) make the straw unacceptable for recycling by the majority of repulping plants.
What about biodegradable straws? “Another misconception is that problems are solved if things were ‘biodegradable’. There’s no such thing as landfill biodegradable.” Biodegradable materials need controlled conditions for degradation to happen. Readily available composting sites are hard to come by, and many biodegradable or compostable products behave like regular plastic when thrown in landfills or in the ocean. Even sugarcane straws aren’t necessarily marine biodegradable.
“We wanted our straw to be more than just a straw.”
So just how did Soilable reinvent the paper straw? By designing and manufacturing products based on three key principles: sustainability, user experience, and corporate concerns.
Unlike the regular paper straw, the Soilable straw is one single sheet of paper rolled up, which already uses up to 30% less paper. Secondly, its water-based barrier coated paper is fully biodegradable and fully repulpable (meaning it can be converted back into pulp after use). As opposed to glue commonly used by paper straws, Soilable uses ultrasonic welding to maintain its shape, the same technology that is used for making surgical masks.
Their latest product ‘Zero’ can be recycled alongside your regular office paper and cardboard boxes. This has been tested at MilMill (a pulp mill in Yuen Long that recycles beverage cartons), and has also been sent to West Michigan University for repulpability tests.
Soilable’s Zero straws are also compostable, and are biodegradable both in soil and in the ocean.
2. Positive User Experience
Regular paper straws don’t usually even last the duration of an average meal. “Our straws are a lot more durable than normal paper straws. They last for at least 3 hours, even up to 5 hours.” The coating used prevents the straws from withering into mush when in a drink, and provides a satisfying “lip feel” that’s very similar to a plastic straw.
“On top of food quality, what’s also important (for restaurants) is the customer’s dining experience.” As regular paper straws have to be wound, they usually come in a spiral pattern, if not plain. Since a Soilable straw is constructed of only one single piece of paper, it offers endless possibilities for custom designs: from riddles and special events, to branded or promotional materials. Straws can also be printed in small batches to keep customers interested and help tailor designs to suit restaurants’ specific needs.
3. Corporate Concerns
“What we want to do isn’t simply recycling, but effective recycling.” There’s often a lot of confusion over what can and cannot be recycled. For Soilable, they aim to help users identify instantly what material their product is made of, and thereby know whether something is recyclable or not.
This means enabling food and beverage providers to serve their takeaway food or drink in disposables that are made of the same recyclable material (e.g. cups, lids and straws) meaning their customers can simply put everything into the paper recycling bin.
Soilable is also working on improving its packaging so that all of their straws are packaged in 100% recyclable material, including all of its labels and seals, to facilitate restaurants to do effective recycling themselves.
Soilable is focusing on further improving its straws in 2021, enabling it to have the enhanced technology to develop other F&B products such as takeaway boxes and single-use carrier bags. They are also hoping to further expand in Asia.
“For many restaurants, the straw is the only disposable item served to a customer. So they go for the cheapest option. But we want restaurants to take sustainability into consideration.” From milk cartons to soup stock tins, Don wants to partner up with Food Made Good to help educate restaurants on how they can recycle all of their packaging, facilitate circularity in their non-food waste, and assist them in showing their commitment to sustainability. “An idea is for restaurants to take their used paper straws and milk cartons and so on, and turn them into toilet paper that will be used in their own restaurant…it’s a gimmick but it’s meaningful.”
Photo: Don Wan
For more information about Soilable, visit https://www.soilable.com/