I Tried a Biodegradable Straw — Made From Food Waste — that Even Trump Will Love
Remember when the President of the United States got into the plastic straw business last summer, introducing “Trump Straws” because “liberal straws don’t work”?
Well, two Chicago entrepreneurs are now selling a “liberal” straw —100-percent biodegradable and compostable, fossil-fuel free, made from recycled food waste —that does work.
The AVO Beginning straw could make biodegradable straws great again by using an ingenious food waste innovation: upcycling discarded avocado pits.
The avocado straw, which started appearing in the Chicago market this summer, is produced in Morelia, Mexico by Biofase, a start-up whose young founder came up with a breakthrough way of creating a polymer by extracting a molecular compound from an avocado pit. According to Mexico Daily News, chemical engineer Scott Munguia spent a year and a half looking for the perfect Mexico-sourced bioplastic, testing mango and mamey sapote seeds, before settling on the avocado pit as the most viable, eco-friendly alternative to the fossil fuel-derived plastic straws that are discarded at a staggering rate (500 million a day in the U.S. alone, according to one estimate)
The most extraordinary aspect of the avocado straws, though, is how they work.
As the success of the “Trump straw” venture indicates, many people have issues with paper straws; although biodegradable, the colder the drink, the quicker paper straws deteriorate. For ice-obsessed Americans, this is a problem.
Enter the avo straw. I tested the straws in a variety of cold, iced drinks (sparkling water, hard seltzer, iced tea, Coke) at my home, and they held up beautifully— as good as any fossil-fuel based, turtle-nostril clogging plastic straw. “It holds up in water as cold as 20 degrees,” said Moses Savalza, one of the company’s co-founders. Savalza also told me that the avocado straw degrades in 240 days. (This is in contrast to conventional plastic straws, which can take more than 100 years to degrade.)
But AVO Beginning’s ice-friendly avocado straws face plenty of competition in an increasingly hot market for plastic straw alternatives.
As single-use plastic straws become increasingly taboo or illegal (cities such as Seattle, Vancouver, and Washington, D.C. already have bans) and as more consumers complain about mushy paper straws, a wave of start-ups are vying for a slice of the eco-friendly straw market.
The alt plastic straw market includes start-ups pitching straws made from everything from hay, corn, and bamboo to pasta, rice, potato and even wild grass straws.
Although any of these straws are better for the environment than plastic, not all plant-based straws are created equal. They have varying durability in cold and hot temperatures, differing production costs, and environmental impacts. (For example, in the environmental blog Green Matters, writer Sophie Hirsh noted that the popular Australian brand Biopak’s eco-friendly utensils are only compostable in “commercial compostable facilities,” whereas the avocado-derived plastics can biodegrade in any natural conditions, including your backyard.
Of some of his chief eco-friendly competitors, Savalza said, “bamboo has good quality, but it’s too expensive, hay…it’s too fragile. Corn or potatoes. They use food.”
Indeed, the reason why the AVO straw make a case for “eco-friendliest of al” is not just because it disposes quickly (biodegrading in 240 days), it is because it’s made from waste.
AVO Beginning straws are made from the thousands of avocado pits that processors discard each day in Michoacan state, the epi-center of Mexico’s avocado industry; most of these pits come from ag giant Simplot, which has alone provided 450,000 pounds of pits for bioplastic production. This is the differentiator, Savalza said. “Paper straws.. you’re cutting down a tree. Straws made from potatoes, or cornstarch.. you’re using something that could be food or feed. With this, you’re not taking away from the supply chain.”
AVO Beginning is one of only two distributors of Biofase’s avocado-based bioplastics in the United States; the chief distributor is California’s Nostalgia de Mexico, said AVO Beginning co-founder Hugo Villasenor.
Since launching in June in Chicago Villasenor said, AVO Beginning has found a small group of enthusiastic early adopters, such as LYFE Kitchen, a small chain that stresses healthy and environmentally-conscious foods, and a Chicago-area catering company that works with corporate clients trying to reduce their plastic footprint. “These are clients that are willing to pay a little more for straws for the environmental benefit,” Villasenor said.
But for many other prospective clients, price is an obstacle. Although the straws are affordable for a bioplastic straw, at two-and-a-half to three cents per straw, Villasenor said that is still more than paper straws (roughly two cents) and plastic straws (less than a penny). For many small restaurants and cafes facing tight margins, this is still a deal breaker, Villasenor said.
Another big obstacle for AVO Beginning is that so many restaurants and cafes rely on a single vendor for their food service product needs. A major goal for AVO Beginning is to get a food service company, such as Sysco or Edward Don, to include AVO straws as part of their range of eco-friendly options. In addition to straws, AVO Beginning also sells knives, forks and spoons made from avocado pits using Biofase’s technology.
Both Villasenor and Savalza concede that another reason their early sales have been sluggish is because they’re both newbies. Villasenor has spent most of career as a restaurant server; Savalza’s background is in trucking and logistics. They’re new to food service sales, and acknowledge there’s a learning curve in figuring out how to reach new clients and decision-makers.
But when asked about the future of avocado-derived plastics, both are confident. “I know this straw will take off,” said Villasenor. “People understand that plastics are one of the great problems of today, and now they want to fix it.”
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