Discovering viable alternatives to plastic straws

January 24, 2020


Plastic straws are embedded deep in our consumer culture.  

They have monopolized other straw alternatives thanks to their convenience. They are so entrenched in our systems that they evoke a cognitive effect in consumer behavior and are provided automatically when you order a drink. We seem to forget about asking a few meaningful questions: Do we really need a straw? Do we even use it when we get it? We might just use it to stir ice cubes or leave it completely unused on the table.  

Eco-Cycle estimates that just the US alone uses up to 500 million plastic straws every day, an average of 1.6 straws per person. That’s 175 billion plastic straws each year, not including all the straws attached to juice and milk cartons. Plastic takes up to 500 years to decompose, so these billions of plastic straws are building up in global landfills and ecosystems.

Cambodia generates more than 4.09 million tons of solid waste each year. More than 20 percent of it is plastic. Around 10 million plastic bags are used daily  in Phnom Penh, according to the European Union and ACRA Foundation. In urban areas, plastic waste causes flooding by clogging drains, respiratory health issues if burned, and results in microplastics in food chains. Though there is no exact number of plastic straw consumption, single-use plastic straws are widely used in various industries in Cambodia.

New approaches

Raising public awareness and advocating for government regulation to curb plastic consumption, such as putting a fee on plastic bags used at supermarkets, are necessary steps but not the full solution. Alternatives to those plastic products are needed, but are limited. This lack of alternatives presents a large barrier for consumers and suppliers who want to switch from plastic. Even just a 10 percent reduction would amount to hundreds of thousands fewer straws. 

The idea is not about choosing plastic straws over plastic bags—both are environmentally harmful—neither is it just about winning the war against plastic. The goal is to take new approaches to complex development challenges and develop a rapid experimentation methodology that can set the stage for others to follow. Starting with plastic straws, we can build inferences on how to change consumer behaviour. These inferences can then address other forms of plastic.

Single-use alternatives

The grass straw is one of the best single-use alternatives because it’s biodegradable. There are many types available, however there is still a lack of rigorous study needed to build consumer confidence and market opportunities. There are more factors to be considered—cost, hygiene, quality, and convenience. As a local café owner told me, “Hygiene and safety are our top priority.”

UNDP Accelerator Labs is approaching the question by carrying out an experiment on grass straws, both imported and home-grown Xyris Indica grass straw. The experiment aims to unveil the grass straw production line, quality, hygiene, and cost, by working with suppliers and manufacturers, testing the grass straws at cafés, getting real time feedback from users, and sharing conclusions to our 60 labs across the globe.

We started with a brainstorming session with grass straw suppliers, coffee shops and young people. Our team is exploring the entire grass straw ecosystem by going to different coffee shops and markets to identify existing alternatives, in other words to see how consumers and suppliers are already addressing the challenge of plastic straws. Next in line, we will work with Ministry of Environment and local community to pilot planting Xyris Indica grass, turn it into grass straw, and bring a prototype into a coffee shop and get it tested.

Fitting the local context

It is exciting that people want solutions instantly and are making great progress towards finding as many as possible. We often come up with many wild ideas, great ones that fit well in different scenarios and supposed to be scalable, but will they fit the local context? How long does it take us to learn about its impact? Most important of all, has it been tested? Some of these ideas require both expertise and resources from other countries.

Local ideas are often overlooked. However, they often fit better in the context as they rise from the challenge itself. Mapping existing solutions and testing them through rapid experimentation can accelerate the speed at which we learn about what works and what does not.