Making straws that don’t suck for the environment

Straws made from cellulose, the major component of trees and plants, don't lose their shape or collapse in on themselves when in use
Members of the research groups of professors van de Ven and Lumb at the first social gathering worldwide in which Cellophax straws are used. TreeMaTech

With the federal ban of single-use plastics planned for this year, the demand for alternatives to everyday plastic products, such as straws, is set to increase. TreeMaTech, a startup company born through a collaboration between chemistry professors from McGill and Lakehead University, is betting on cellulose for making drinking straws that don’t suck for the environment.

The company, founded by Theo van de Ven and Jean-Philip Lumb, professors in McGill’s Department of Chemistry, and Lakehead University’s Md Nur Alam, has recently developed a prototype drinking straw made from Cellophax, a “plastic-like material made from cellulose, the major component of trees and plants.”

“Our estimate is that Canadians throw out about a billion straws every year,” says Van de Ven. “With plastic drinking straws being such a big issue, we were excited when we realized that we could easily make them out of cellulose.”

Straws keep their shape

Van de Ven says the straws, which can be easily produced from a viscous cellulose solution obtained from a proprietary process developed by the founders, look and feel like regular plastic straws, making them more likely to be adopted as a replacement than other alternatives already on the market.

“Everybody I speak with seems to hate paper straws; they get soggy and cave in on themselves,” he told the Reporter. “Our straws keep their shape once the get wet, you could even use them for a hot drink, they’re very stable.”

More importantly, they’re made from a renewable and recyclable resource.

“Once they’re used, we can redissolve them in an alkaline solution to make new straws or use the material to make other cellulose-based products.”

For now, kraft pulp – usually used to make office and tissue paper – is used as the source material for TreeMaTech’s products, but van de Ven said it should be easy enough to extract cellulose from sawdust or shredded paper, an approach that would significantly cut production costs.

Bright future for cellulose-based products

Though TreeMaTech is focusing on drinking straws as a first step, the company plans to apply their technology to replacing a number of single-use plastics, such as bottles, bags and textiles.

“Cellulose textiles already exist, but the processes used to make and dye them are very toxic and come with a significant environmental footprint,” van de Ven explains. “The process we’ve developed doesn’t require harmful chemicals so it’s very promising.

TreeMaTech has purchased a spinneret to make their cellulose fibres into yarn to be woven into fabrics in order to test the material properties of the product.

Recently, the startup has also made headway in the lab by producing “ultra-thin and ultra-strong” recyclable cellulose films.

“The plastic market is quite large, so our technology shows great potential. It’s quite exciting,” says van de Ven.