Straw pollution bubbling over with stricter plastic ban

Non-degradable single-use plastic straws, along with non-degradable one-off plastic tableware, have been stamped out from dining-in in major cities by the end of 2020.

Xu Nuo, a 26-year-old bubble tea lover, as started tasting something off with her milk tea since China announced the phasing out of environmentally-unfriendly plastic products in the coming five years.

A paper straw was the culprit. "Not only was the taste affected, but also the straw turned mushy after a while, making it hard to suck up the chewy tapioca balls,” grumbled Xu, adding that Polylactic Acid straws would become her gadget go-tos next time.

PLA, a degradable and recycle-friendly alternative to plastic, is having its moment in China.

Since the country launched its most stringent plastic ban last year, non-degradable single-use plastic straws, along with non-degradable one-off plastic tableware, have been stamped out from dining-in in major cities by the end of 2020.

"Last year witnessed a steep rise in the price of PLA, from 18,000 yuan (US$2,782) to 30,000 yuan per ton, and it is still riding high,” said Chen Yi, general manager of Nanjing Wurui Biodegradable New Material Research Institute Co Ltd.

Produced from plant-based feedstock such as corn or sugar cane, PLA can decompose into carbon dioxide and water under certain environmental conditions. Aside from the public’s green concerns, the open sesame to PLA’s bonanza hinges on a bittersweet fact: customer experience.

Retaining the flavor of drinks, the PLA straws stand head and shoulders above other solutions in replicating the experience of their plastic counterparts, according to Chen.

Though a bevy of leaders in the catering industry has followed suit, the rigid plastic ban is still challenged by the ratchet effect in the domain of consumption habits.

In 2021, all KFC franchises on the Chinese mainland will remove plastic straws in line with the upgraded ban, and more than 90 percent of them plan to ditch disposable plastic cutlery for wooden ones in their dine-in and takeaway services.

However, many diners frowned at the small and flat wooden spoons provided by the fast-food giant, as the design made scooping food an impossible mission.

"We welcome the green shift, but not at the expense of spoiling our dining experience,” said Zhou Yuexiang, a diner in east China’s Jiangsu Province.

COVID-19 pollution

Reeling from the dilemma, McDonald’s China came up with new lids that customers can drink from directly and is due to slash about 400 metric tons of plastic waste annually, whereas a majority of others will opt for an easier way out. HEYTEA, a Chinese popular tea shop chain, has started to serve its customers PLA alternatives.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also fueled appalling pollution from disposable products like plastic face masks and hand sanitizer bottles, according to a report released by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in 2020.

China has been long plagued by plastic waste. In 2008, the Chinese government imposed limits on the use of plastic bags. Since then, supermarkets and shops have been prohibited from giving out free plastic bags to customers.

However, the restriction on flimsy plastic bags achieved limited success, according to Liu Weijing, director of Jiangsu Provincial Academy of Environmental Science.

In recent years, China has paid heed to the growing water pollution, especially garbage dumped in the marine environment, and thus upgraded the plastic ban.

"However, the real solution to the problem lies in research and development on substitutes for plastics,” said Liu, adding that proper recycling of plastic waste is another key answer to the problem.

Biodegradable plastics are therefore expected to take hold and win the hearts of businesses and consumers in the near future.

It is estimated that by 2025, China’s degradable plastics market will notch up about 35.8 billion yuan in value, according to Huaxi Securities Co Ltd, anaylysts say.

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