Jul 21, 2019 | Updated: 09:46 AM EDT

The Incredible, Edible… Straw?

Apr 24, 2019 12:11 PM EDT

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In South Korea, one man and his company has taken the fight against plastic straw waste to another level-by developing a version that you can eat. "These straws are edible," says Kwang-Pil Kim, chief executive officer of Seoul-based company Yeonjigonji. "You can throw them away if you don't want to eat them. Simply put them in a flower bed, or in a fish tank." Kim says the product was born out of concern about the impact of plastic straws to the environment, noting that in South Korea alone, some 2.6 billion plastic straws are being used every year.

Harder than the usual plastic straw, the edible straws were made of seven parts rice flour and three parts tapioca powder. It slightly smells like rice, although the base product does not affect the taste of the drink in any way. Originally founded by his parents to manufacture and distribute traditional bridal shoes, Kim took over Yeonjigonji in 1999. He managed the firm for 15 years but was not able to make ends meet, finding wedding shoes to be a dying industry.

Searching for a new business product in early 2017, he recalls stumbling upon an article about an American startup, Loliware, that was developing edible cups. "If they can make an edible cup, couldn't we make an edible straw?" he recalls. "I thought about ingredients that South-Koreans don't generally dislike. Rice immediately came to mind."

It took one and a half year of research and trials before Kim succeeded in creating the rice straw. Now, his company produces 500 million pieces every year. Yeonjigonji now supplies rice straws to small cafes, and has signed contracts with major department stores, hypermarkets and hotels in South Korea. Individual consumers can buy the straws online.

While it takes as long as 200 years for an ordinary plastic straw to decompose, leaving plastic microbeads behind, a rice straw takes 100 days at most. "When I put a rice straw into a fish tank at home, fish nibbled away the straw in less than a month," Kim says, adding that an experiment conducted by one of his partners in Indonesia showed a rice straw decomposing in seawater in just eight days. Consumers, who have long enjoyed the convenience of plastic straws, may find rice straws inconvenient to use at first. However, a considerable amount of people seems willing to put up with inconvenience for the sake of the environment.

Kim's journey to develop the environmentally friendly product coincides with a bigger movement against plastic straws. In October 2018, the European Parliament approved a ban on single-use plastic, including straws, starting in 2021. In January 2018, China banned imports of recyclable waste such as plastic or paper, leading to a waste crisis in South Korea and other countries. Urgently needing to find a solution, last August the Korean government imposed a ban on single-use plastic cups in cafes and fast-food restaurants.

Kim says the edible straws are just the beginning. Yeonjigonji has also developed disposable cups, forks, spoons, knives and bags made of rice, and is planning to sell these products in South Korea and abroad starting this month.

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