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Drinking without plastic : the amazing bamboo straw, long lasting and easy to make

Many alternatives to plastic items are made by nature but we have forgotten how easy, healthy and nature friendly these simple objects are. These objects were replaced only a few decades ago, at most a century. One of these is the natural straw, that can be made of straw or of bamboo for example.

The bamboo straw is one of the easiest tools we can borrow from nature, it grows easily (to easily may say some of us), in different climates and on many species of bambo. Anyone who has access to a bamboo tree can cut a small piece of it and have a years lasting straw. You don’t even need to work on it : the hole in the straw is already there !
You can cut the straw yourself or buy it, both options take only a few minutes. Thanks to that simple personal device, you can make your life and your drinks greener and more beautiful.

Making an easy ecologic step : the impact of straws

A bamboo straw is a nice looking and cool object indeed, it is also easy to carry in your pocket or in a bag and it is meaningfull.

Having a long lasting straw is an easy and yet a great step you can make for your health and for the environment. Plastic molecules can get into your cells and blood by direct use of a plastic object but also through the environement. This is why a polluted environment can affect your own personal health : tons of plastic straws end up in the ocean, they desintegrate in small pieces of plastic that plankton eat before they get eaten by any of the fish or seafood you may have for dinner. This is one of the ways plastic gets into the food chain and this is how we end up eating the straw that we use once, for a couple of minutes, and then throw away.

In fact, these small and almost useless objects are used for about 10 minutes and will remain for hundreds or thousands of years on the earth.

Plastic straws are not the only objects to be found in the oceans, but they are one of the most comon plastic waste. One of the reasons they are overrepresented is their heavy use that can reach in some countries several straws per person per day. Another reason is their size that makes them less interesting to collect for recycling compared to plastic bottles that are more valuable for waste pickers who can redeem them for some small cash. South-East-Asia and China are big consumers of straws and their unefficient waste management makes them responsible for a large part of the world’s plastic found in the ocean. But they are not the only ones.

The whole world is contributing to the floating mountains of plastic waste, and each of us can make use of a long lasting natural straw and opt out of the plastic stream. You can spread it of course to other single-use plastic items, such as plastic razors that don’t even shave as good as the classical double edge metallic one (which receive simple blades that are compatible with all).

How many straws are being used ?

I don’t know for the whole world, but in the USA the estimation is about 500 million per day1. That’s about 2 million per hour, 350 000 per minute, 5 800 per second, that’s also 182 500 000 000 per year. Counting by person, the average rate is of 1.6 straws per person per day1, so one person would use almost 600 straws per year. These numbers also usually come with other single-use disposable plastic items such as single-use shopping bags, to-go containers, bottled drinks and coffee cups. But let’s concentrate on straws here.

Instead of using about 600 straw per year, you could get one single bamboo straw and keep it several months, even a year or more. Then when you want to get rid of your straw, nature who produced it can also take care of it. A very nice thing that will happen is that instead of piling up in the oceans, your straw will become good food for insects, fungi and other living inhabitants of the soil, and make the Earth more fertile.

From a regional or national point of view, instead of producing about 600 plastic straws per year per person, we could grow bamboo trees and produce few straws per person (one straw is enough but what if you loose it or break it ?)

Production, transport and waste management for straws per person per year :

600 plastic straws (USA) → 1 to 6 bamboo straws

Long lasting and economical solution

If we look at the price, 600 straws cost about 8 USD per year per person. This is the price of 6 to 10 bamboo straws, costing about 1USD for each piece. This being the prices for a smaller scale production than plastic straws factories are. So I guess that plastic straw factories could easily make money selling these kind of natural straws.

As a society, we can see economy in a more efficient way, instead of producing, wrapping, transporting, putting on shelves and buying 182 500 000 000 straws per year and throwing them away, which is also transport and waste management if they don’t get into the sea before.

To this price, we should also ask, who pays for waste management ? Not the straw factories, we do, through our taxes (this is what we call externalization of costs).

A renewable and green production

Thinking about landscape and territory management, is a plastic straw factory, or any other petrol-based production facility (because in case you didn’t know, plastic is made out of petrol), a place you would like to hang around, or have in your neighbourhood, or even work at ?

Now imagine that instead of a plastic straw factory we would grow bamboo tree forests…Much nicer in your neighborhood isn’t it ?

In order to complete the picture, I would add that these straw production sites should be diversified healthy forests, where bamboo is cultivated together with other plants and trees. Having mixed plants rather than only one species gives better results: a Chinese study about bamboo production in the state of Fujian, has shown that in the monoculture forests 35% of bamboo trees were damaged by phytophagous mites, whereas in the polyculture bamboo forests, damages incurred were 50 % lower. Monocolture is also bad for trees growth and production rate as « monoculture not only affects the movement of mites and abundance of natural enemies, but also depletes the nutri-

ents in the forests faster than a natural polyculture forest »2. In the same forest, together with bamboo, you can grow other plants and raise different animals, thus creating a healthy system where all components are beneficial for each other. This means less work for you and less expenses on medical products, pesticides, fertilizers, water,…and a more diverse production which gives more security to your business or local production.

Alternatively, you could also plant a bamboo in your garden in order to have your own production, for free and without transport. Besides, Bamboo trees have much wider uses than being straw providers (like puryfiying water).

How I made my first bamboo straw ?

On my first trip to Thailand, I came accross a wonderfull small shop full of fresh and sweet coconuts in the small lovely town of Trat. When I buy drinks in South-East-Asia, I usually try to wave a reusable straw before the seller sticks a new plastic one into my glass or my coconut. In Europe, orin Switzerland at least, straws are rather given to children, while in South-East-Asia they are given with every single drink you buy. Some may think it is done for hygenic reasons, but it’s not hygenic to put in your mouth a plastic straw that has been standing for days in an open pack on a street food stall and then being touched by the sellers’ fingers after handling money, among other things.

Homemade bamboo straws,
with swiss bamboo from the garden

As a friend was getting two coconuts oppened, I offered him a straw that I had kept from my last drink. My friend asked : « is it a glass straw or something not made of plastic ? », I said no. He refused my recycled straw and I relfected on the risks of carying a glass straw, « what if it breaks in your bag or while you are drinking? ».

I was struck by the lack of a nice alternative to the plastic straw and I kept thinking of it until one day an idea poped into my mind : what about a wooden straw ?

I remembered that bamboo trees have empty stems and branches – which makes them lighter and yet a robust building material – five minutes later I was holding a pruning shear and cutting some bamboo branches from my parents garden in Switzerland.

It took me a few attempts to find the perfect piece of bamboo, neither too thin nor to large, long enough with a nice hole.

Pleasure and healthy feeling with bamboo

Eversince, I always travel with my own bamboo straw and some extra ones to give to the nice people I meet. I’ve been using the same bamboo straw since more than a year now and it’s still good, I only drink fresh coconuts with it, and I don’t always rince it, just let it dry a little bit before puting it back in my handbag. I am very happy to drink with it, it feels so natural and fresh. Some friends don’t feel the difference, but for me, every time I hapen to drink with a plastic straw it feels less comfortable, as if the touch, the energy or the taste of the drink were modified by plastic molecules.

A Malaysian friend strengthened my belief when he pointed out that bamboo has medicinal properties. Could it be true that drinking often with a bamboo straw may have some health benefits ? In fact, bamboo plant contains proteins and minerals such as calcium, iron and vitamins. In Chinese medicine and in other Asian coutries, different varieties of bamboo are selected for different medical applications. Some species of bamboo stems are used for instance for reducing fever, nausea, anxiety, bronchitis, cough,…

People also take powder or infusion of bamboo stems (or roots and leaves…). What if drinking hot beverages through your bamboo straw could provide you with some nutrients in the same time ? These are open questions that I would be happy to know more about through current or past research, if any.

On the other hand, what are the effects of drinking with a plastic straw or from a plastic container ? Is it some sort of a « plastic infusion »that we get with hot beverages ? In a similar way to bamboo straws, bamboo cups, that were commonly used in all Asia before, and that are still being used for some traditional beverages in Cambodia and other Asian countries, would be a great replacement to plastic cups.

So far, I’m not considering to start making bamboo cups myself as I would need bigger larger bamboo trees and different tools. But a bamboo straw is a different story : it is so easy to make that I feel like telling every body « make your own straw » ! 5 years after I started with my bamboo straw, this item became more popular (not thanks to me), and I see it in many organic shops. Unfortunately, in every place I asked, they said they where imported from Indonesia. Making your own local and personal straw is a better choice if we want to reduce CO2 emissions. For a single 5 grams straw it may not matter, but if we go back to numbers, we are talking of billions of straw. Producing them locally would be much better. Local businesses could pop out, as bamboo grows every where. The price may be different but it’s about time we stop relying on lower salary populations and sustaining our local market and producers.

What drink shops and restaurants can do ?

As it is becoming more popular, restaurants and drinks shops, like juice and smoothie places, cafés, bars and any place that gives 10-minute-use plastic straw, could give bamboo straws instead. We would then grow more plants and use less petrol for plastic production, and we would generate less plastic waste too.

Nevertheless, I can understand that the use-and-throw plastic has advantages for shops. Mainly two :

  • You don’t need to clean it
  • it is cheap, so you can give it for free

A third advantage is political :

  • Even if you give away thousands of straws you don’t pay for the waste management. The whole population does

On the drawbacks we have the year scale point of view :

  • A drink seller will have to buy thousands or hundred thousands of straw (a small business with 30 clients only a day needs nearly 11 000 straws per year) and he will have nothing in the end

Whereas if he buys long lasting straws (and he needs less of them, for 30 clients a day, 60 or 100 are fare enough), bamboo or other types, and washes them, he will still have these straw in the end.

He could also sell them to the custommers as a personal straw to keep with them and encourage people to bring their own straw to drink. This is a way to avoid extra work cleaning the straws, and to spread a new habit in the world.

What you can personnaly do

I believe every one should carry their own personal bamboo straw in their bag. It’s small and light, and it can spare so much plastic production and waste.

Small effort, big effect !

It’s the same with chopsticks, forks and spoons. Actually any object that you use and throw have a long lasting alternative, or a natural use and throw alternative, just ast banana leaves can be usedas a meal container in South-East-Asia, and gentiane leaves in Switzerland and other temperate mountains, tussilage leaves too. Natural items can be used instead of plactic and can be given back to nature where waste management will be taken care of by insects. There is always an alternative, otherwise how did people do in the past ? And how will we do after petrol ? Any one can draw inspiration from the past, from different cultures or from knowing nature better, and come up with someting new.

There is a last point I didn’t cover, which is the induced need of plastic items. This « need » is partly due to our current way of living : daily commuting to work places far from home, traveling away to places where we cannot cook, buying lunch in the street or in snack-food shops, polluted water in many countries that makes it impossible to drink tap water, etc.

Therefore, if we want to do without single use plastic items, we have to be prepared… It may seem complicated in the begining, and cumbersome, but in fact it’s just a matter of being organised. Just as we remember to take our mobile phone when we go out…

So let’s not be too lazy.

Here is a list of objets you can set up to have always with you when you go out, this article presents you a personal eco-kit you can design for yourself.

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