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Scientists create a stir with paper straws that don't get soggy: 'The difference will be profound'

Among other tests, they also stabbed a potato with a new straw to illustrate the straw's strength.

Among other tests, they also stabbed a potato with a new straw to illustrate the straw’s strength

Photo Credit: iStock

Paper straws that don't get soggy when you sip, yet break down in the environment without releasing toxins, are under development by South Korean researchers who reported findings earlier this year.

Put differently, scientists are working to address accusations that most paper straws suck. Or, rather, that they don't suck well enough.

A paper in the journal Advanced Science reports on the researchers' success at creating "biodegradable, water-resistant, anti-fizzing" paper straws that outperform existing products.

The research aims at problems with paper straws as eco-friendly alternatives to plastic ones. 

As the scientists write, plastic straws — even bio-based ones made from materials like corn sugars — are "​​particularly detrimental to marine ecosystems" in part because they're sharp and break down slowly. 

Available paper straws may degrade more quickly but soak up the liquids they're supposed to help you drink. Plus, they're often coated with plastics that make them little to no better ecologically, as a news release from Korea's National Research Council of Science & Technology indicates.

The researchers' innovation is to use nanocrystals reportedly made from the same material as a base material in the straw's paper. The crystals helped the scientists coat paper with a biodegradable plastic that qualifies as compostable according to an international standard.

Conducting tests with cold, hot, carbonated, and fatty liquids, the research team found that their eco-friendly straws performed better than conventional paper ones. The scientists hung small weights on both types of straw after wetting them. The new straws bent far less

Among other tests, they also stabbed a potato with a new straw to illustrate the straw's strength.

What could really create a stir are the researchers' marine and compost tests. After 120 days, regular and corn plastic straws hadn't decomposed in the ocean. Conventional paper straws kept their shape and lost 5% of their weight. The new straws lost 50% of their weight in 60 days and decomposed in 120 days. They also decomposed in compost exposed to air.

If the new straws are brought to market, they could provide helpful alternatives to plastics, as Americans use 170 million or more straws each day, according to The New York Times. Reusing metal straws or not using straws are other options, but these aren't always viable for people with disabilities.

Conventional plastic straws are made from refined oil, and their production creates pollution that contributes to Earth's overheating. Plastics threaten marine life over the many years they are in the environment. Even when they decompose, they release smaller plastic bits that are increasingly worrisome.

Recently, U.S. and European studies have shown more brands of biodegradable straws, including paper ones, contain toxins known as "forever chemicals" than plastic ones. It's unclear whether this is a problem for the straws from South Korea.

So, is the new discovery the "best" option? The proverbial last straw? 

"This technology is but a small step toward the direction we need to take in this era of plastic," Oh Dongyeop, the head researcher, said for the news release. "Turning a plastic straw we often use into a paper straw will not immediately impact our environment, but the difference will be profound over time."

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