The last straw: Northwestern University students weigh in on consumer plastic pollution

The last straw: Northwestern University students weigh in on consumer plastic pollution

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Biodiversity, Climate, Colleges & Education, Conservation, Green Living, Sustainability

By Jesse Perlmutter

Americans use about 500 million plastic straws every day. Coffee shops and restaurants continue to serve their drinks with plastic straws, contributing to an astronomical level of plastic waste. An estimated 437 million to 8.3 billion plastic straws litter the world’s coastlines alone, according to the not-for-profit Our Last Straw.

Plastic never fully decomposes, rather over time it breaks down into a microplastic pollutant that travels through food chains and is often ingested by marine species eaten by humans. F

Yet, plastic straws still make up 99% of the global straw market

In recent years, many states – CA, ME, NJ, OR, RI, VT and WA – have put forth bans on plastic straws in order to push for a transition to more sustainable alternatives such as paper and bamboo straws. 

Envisioning the next generation of the straw

Zhara Hussain, a Northwestern University sophomore majoring in economics, from Lahore, Pakistan, is the co-founder of Envo, a startup that produces and sells refined straws made of naturally hollow wheat stems. 

Envo boxes, available in small and large sizes. (Courtesy of Envo)

While Hussain is studying in America, her co-founder and best friend, Shanze Malik has kept up production and shipping across Pakistan. This past year in Pakistan, they sold around 70-100 boxes of straws a month. 

Hussain was recently accepted to the Garage’s Jumpstart Pre-Accelerator program that provides students with resources and coaching over a 10 week period. The Garage is a program at Northwestern University that seeks to provide community and mentorship to student entrepreneurs. This summer, Hussain is working out of the Garage from 9am-5pm on weekdays to develop a new branch of Envo based in the U.S. 

“Shipping costs overseas are a lot. This summer in the U.S. I hope to connect with local Illinois farmers that could be our suppliers and find a team here to start producing the straws,” said Hussain. 

She plans to use the stipend provided by Jumpstart for production, packaging, and delivery costs within the U.S. and the mentorship to guide her through the patent application process. 

Hussain has been in contact with Pâtisserie Coralie in Evanston, Illinois and says they have expressed interest in using Envo straws. “My vision for Envo is to see major companies like Starbucks and McDonalds replacing their plastic straws with wheat straws,” said Hussain, “But obviously, that’s a long way down the road. We’re gonna start off with local cafes and restaurants.”

Hussain and Malik began this entrepreneurial endeavor during the pandemic in Pakistan – where plastics account for 65% of the waste that is found on the country’s beaches. Together they brainstormed ideas to tackle the pressing issue of plastic pollution.

“The solution: focus on reducing the production and availability of single-use plastic products along with their usage by providing an equally convenient alternative. That’s exactly what I wanted to do,” said Hussain. 

Hussain’s interview about Envo and her plans with Garage’s Jumpstart program. (Jesse Perlmutter)

Finding materials that are truly biodegradable

Inspired by Vietnamese wild grass straws, Hussain developed the idea to use wheat, the most abundantly available raw material in Pakistan and many parts of the world including the U.S. They reached out to Pakistani farmers to source wheat stems that function as naturally formed straws because of their hollow inside and cylinder shape. 

“That summer we would watch shows and cut straws,” said Hussain, “We didn’t have to do any factory manufacturing. All we had to do was take our scissors and cut them.” 

Following the initial preparation phase comes a cleaning and refining process where the wheat straws are boiled in water, which also helps to stiffen the stems. From start to finish Hussain said that all processes involved in the creation of the straws are chemical-free.

Paper straws have become the most common alternative to plastic straws. However, Hussain believes that Envo is a more sustainable and effective product. In terms of utility, she stressed that wheat straws are able to hold up better so they don’t become flimsy in liquid. Additionally, they are plant fiber, which can go in compost bins. 

“In regards to waste they are better off too. Where you can use one wheat straw for a couple of drinks, you will have to use five or six paper straws. Wheat is also a natural product while paper straws require a lot of factory production and machinery,” said Hussain.  

Miaohan Tang, a Northwestern University Postdoctoral Researcher, studies the environmental impact of polymer degradation using life cycle assessment. 

She conducts her research through a database created by national labs, including Argonne National Laboratory, to conduct a macro-scale analysis of plastic’s environmental impact. In particular she focuses on polypropylene, used most commonly in plastics. 

Tang explained that among numerous types of plastic, biodegradable plastic has gained recent popularity. It is composed of polylactic acid, which is derived from materials such as cornstarch and sugarcane. 

“However, biodegradable plastics are not necessarily biodegradable,” said Tang. “You must also consider the specific conditions or environments that must be maintained. For example some polylactic acid will only biodegrade under industrial composting considerations. If polylactic acid enters into the marine environment, its degradation rate is similar to the traditional, high-density fossil based plastic.”  

Tang recommends that large companies who use biodegradable plastic consider the environmental impact of plastic’s life cycle as well its production stage. She notes that most biodegradable plastics end up in landfills and action should be taken by these businesses to increase education on plastic damage or further promote plastic recycling.  

When the environmental impact of alternatives to polypropylene plastic are examined from multiple viewpoints, it reveals distinct avenues for pollution that must be considered. Biodegradable plastic straws have good environmental performers in accumulation, however, “when we consider energy and water consumption, sometimes the traditional paper straw has better performers from a lifecycle perspective,” said Tang. 

Fighting pollution at both the consumer and corporate levels

Northwestern’s Associated Student Government Sustainability Committee focuses on initiatives that highlight waste management. Committee Chair, sophomore majoring in journalism Sam Bull, said “it’s hard for consumers to know what’s recyclable. There are seven plastic types, labeled by a tiny number on the bottom of every package. There are some plastics that are impossible to recycle, but most people wouldn’t know which ones. A lot of what we’re trying to do is just educate.” 

Bull hopes to see Northwestern follow through on environmental initiatives including the implementation of a sustainability distribution requirement and the removal of plastic water bottles that are provided with meals at Norris Student Center. 

Similar to Tang’s emphasis on holding large companies liable, Bull expressed his anti-establishment sentiment, “I don’t want to alleviate responsibility from people, however it’s significant that 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions.” 

The Global Engagement Summit (GES) is a student-run-innovation conference that brings delegates from around the world to collaborate and share their projects at Northwestern. Member of GES, sophomore majoring in history Chloe Rappaport, took part in planning the conference this past year which brought startups to campus like Farmlink – a company that fights food insecurity by repurposing surplus produce. 

“I think the most important type of entrepreneurial endeavors are those that bring about positive social or environmental impacts. There are so many companies whose sole goal is to just make money. The innovations that really matter are the ones that better the world,” said Rappaport. 

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