Plastic Straw Ban: Can Bamboo Straws Be an Alternative?

In 2018, Dr. Lal Ji Singh, scientist at the Botanical Survey Of India (BSI) came up with an innovation–reusable and biodegradable bamboo straws–which is a viable replacement for paper straws

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Come the sweltering summer heat and we have a variety of cool drinks to quench our thirst. These summer drinks often come with single-use plastic straws, which are not environmentally-friendly. To contain the adverse effects on the environment, the Center has banned single-use plastic straws, effective 1 July. Now, what other alternatives do beverage companies have?

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This ban poses a challenge to beverage companies such as Amul, Parle Agro, Dabur, Coca Cola (Maaza) and Pepsico (Tropicana) as the brands are yet to figure out a sustainable strategy. Paper straws are looked at as an alternative but companies fear there are not much infrastructural facilities to support these. It is difficult to source paper straws locally and the other option is to import which would impact unit price.

Read more: Why Beverage Companies Are Resisting Immediate Plastic Straw Ban

So, are paper straws the only alternative for beverage companies? In 2018, Dr. Lal Ji Singh, a scientist at the Botanical Survey Of India (BSI), came up with an innovation–reusable and biodegradable bamboo straws–which is a viable replacement for paper straws.

The straws were sourced from a species of bamboo, schizostachyum andamanicum, native to the Andaman and Nicobar islands. The specimen was discovered about twenty years ago and is characterized by a thin hollow stem and long internodes.

The scientist had mentioned that in its natural form, the bamboo species cannot be used as a straw but after observing the plant's appearance and structure, he found that it was ideal to be turned into a drinking straw. "Here's how it's done. First, the sections of the culm between the nodes are cut into small pieces, to the length of a drinking straw. This can be done either by machine or manually, and then the culm sheath and solid nodes are removed. Not only is a bamboo straw biodegradable, it can be reused for years. And the cost? Just 50 paise per piece. Its longevity makes it cheaper than plastic. The work to make a bamboo straw has gone on since 2011," he said in an interview.

Bamboo is one of the most sustainable plants and can actually grow to full maturity between three to five years. It grows in abundance, mainly in the warm and tropical climates of Asia. It's fully biodegradable and made from real bamboo stalks that can be reused. However, bamboo straws are not always seen as cost effective.

An official said, "We use paper straws as it is economically viable. If we were to use bamboo straws we have to wash and sterilize it. The straws we buy have to be used within a week of purchase. Otherwise, it'll wither away. Unless one grows their own bamboo, they can't economically afford it."

According to research, about 1 billion plastic straws are used every day worldwide. Countries such as Costa Rica, South Africa and Thailand have also been shifting to straws made of sustainable products such as bamboo, paper or wood instead of plastic. The growing inclination of people towards the use of environment-friendly products is expected to drive the growth of bamboo straws and due to some of its exceptional properties, the bamboo straws market is anticipated to witness high growth prospects in the near future.

In fact, the Indian government launched The National Bamboo Mission, as a centrally sponsored scheme to strengthen the domestic cultivation of more than 136 varieties of bamboo species spread across the country and boost the income of the farmers and other stakeholders involved in the sector. India has a huge untapped potential in the bamboo sector, yielding an income of more than INR.30,000 crores. Under the Mission, steps have been taken to increase the availability of quality planting material by supporting the setting up of new nurseries and strengthening of existing ones.

The Restructured National Bamboo Mission is a centrally sponsored scheme (CSS). It is being implemented through the state nodal department which is nominated by the State/UT governments concerned.