China Food

The green revolution of a straw

The problem to be solved by
may not be the material itself, but the proliferation of one-time consumption culture.
The official account is from WeChat public economy & Finance weekly (ID:CBNweekly2008).
“This year’s strategy is to focus on the milk tea industry. Domestic small customers are growing very fast, about 30 more every month.” Yang Hao, general manager of Shanghai huiang Industrial Co., Ltd., said that the company established in 2017 only makes disposable products of degradable materials – including straw, lunch box, garbage bag, fresh-keeping bag, etc. – in the past, it was mainly exported, but now the situation has changed.
focuses on the milk tea industry, and disposable products made of degradable materials have become popular this year.
The turning point occurred in January 2020. The national development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of ecological environment issued the opinions on further strengthening plastic pollution control, which stipulates that the use of non degradable disposable plastic straws will be prohibited in the catering industry nationwide by the end of 2020.
Circular of the general office of the State Council on restricting the production and sale of plastic shopping bags promulgated as early as December 31, 2007 , more than ten years after its implementation, it has not effectively reduced the total amount of plastic bags used by the society. Unlike the first law on plastic bags only, the scope of the new plastic restriction order has been expanded to the category of plastic products, which puts forward detailed requirements for various plastic products, and no longer gives the “loose” option of paid use, but encourages alternative products and models.
Interestingly, public opinion and market education began with the straws of new tea brands. In recent years, new tea has become a popular beverage category, and the lifestyle of “living on milk tea” has even appeared among young people, making the use of disposable straws more and more frequent. In 2019, the per capita use of plastic straws in China exceeded 30.
For consumers, straws are just gifts or daily necessities bought at random. Unless it changes suddenly, few people care about the importance of a small object to their life. But this time, they feel the power of plastic restriction order from a straws and the first large-scale appearance of new materials.

Packaging materials have always been very important for ready-made beverages, and the development of takeout business has made packaging materials a part of the upgrading of consumers’ experience. Consumers see that the packaging of tea drinks is becoming more and more advanced and complex: more than one cup has a fixed paper bracket; exquisite brands will attach temperature bags and even have a knife to cut the seal; as for straws, almost no naked packaging can be seen, but each one All have separate packaging. This also means that more and more waste is generated.
The sustainable trend has become popular in areas prone to waste, and has been transmitted from large overseas companies to China. In July 2018, Starbucks China promised to stop using plastic straws in stores across the country by 2020, which is expected to reduce more than 1 billion plastic straws every year.
Yu Jinxiu, senior director of Xi tea supply chain, remembers that before the strict implementation of the plastic restriction order, Xi tea introduced three-layer paper straws in stores in 2019. At that time, they mostly saw such general straws bonded by three layers of paper at the suppliers.
Although the stores provide consumers with two choices of paper straw and plastic straw, the plastic straw still occupies an absolute position. Just as the public opinion rebounded after the implementation of the plastic restriction order, consumers soon showed dissatisfaction with the paper straw: it is not stiff enough, the oblique section can not pierce the seal, it will be softened or even spread over a long time, and the taste is astringent… Therefore, the second version of paper straw for tea increased to Four layers, although more rigid, but the shortcomings of the paper itself can not be avoided.
In November 2020, Xi tea began to provide a third choice in stores – polylactic acid (PLA) straw. After the implementation of the plastic restriction order, only paper straw and PLA straw were provided. Yu Jinxiu found that more consumers chose the latter because “it is closer to the taste of the original plastic straw” The straw with PLA as the main raw material will be rapidly popularized among major tea brands after 2020.
PLA is a biodegradable material, that is, it can be degraded under the action of microorganisms in a specific environment and completely transformed into carbon dioxide and water. The raw materials of PLA mainly come from plant starch and sucrose, which are prepared into polylactic acid particles through the process of decomposition, fermentation and polymerization. According to the Research Report “cracking” degradable plastics “of Greenpeace organization At present, there are only PLA, starch based plastics and dibasic acid diol copolyester plastics polymerized with petroleum by-products as raw materials, including PBS and PBAT. The total capacity of these three types of materials accounts for 95% of all biodegradable plastics.
From the perspective of the whole industry chain, compared with petroleum based degradable materials, bio based degradable materials represented by PLA are considered to be better in achieving sustainable development because the source is plants – and replanted food crops.
However, to produce commercial products, PLA also has disadvantages: it is not resistant to high temperature, and it may overheat and deform at about 50 ℃; it is not tenacious and fragile; the shelf life is short, and it will begin to degrade in about a year. Therefore, according to the customer’s demand for specific products, the supplier will mix PLA and other degradable materials in proportion and use additives to form “modified” plastics.
Specific to the straw, with the ready-made beverage, it should be able to adapt to the temperature from ice to heat, soak in different liquids for a long time, and the shape and performance will not change. After the new tea has created the basic matching of fresh fruit tea with milk cover, the change of taste substances such as pulp, pearl and fairy grass has become an innovation. This requires that the straw must be rigid and high toughness in addition to its thick diameter, otherwise “it can’t be sucked after folding”.
In order to meet various requirements, Xi tea currently supplies two kinds of PLA modified plastic straws, which are mixed with PBAT and PBS petroleum based degradable materials respectively. The former helps to increase toughness and resilience, and the latter has better heat resistance.
At the same time, PLA straws should also be equipped with different types of previous plastic straws. “Bobo tea with large grains is equipped with a thick straw, pure lemon tea is supplied with a fine straw, and others, such as pure tea with a snow top and green root fruit, are equipped with a flat three hole straw,” Yu Jinxiu said.
The third edition of hi tea paper straw that has not been fully launched is different in that the paper straw is covered with a layer of PLA film – in the past, this coating was usually polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP). The film itself is waterproof and oil proof, and helps to set the paper at the same time. This is also one of the directions of the evolution of paper straw.
Theoretically, these biodegradable straw materials can be mixed with various plant components, such as bagasse, coffee grounds and wheat straw. However, it needs to be clarified that the main raw materials of such straws are still PLA and other materials, and what plant fibers provide is actually “some sensory effects”. Yang Hao showed several bagasse and coffee grounds straw samples to yimagazine. In order to create the original ecological feeling, the colors were designed to be brown and beige, making a rough feel.
Since April 2021, Starbucks has opened a “slag pipe” containing extracted coffee grounds in its stores in mainland China. At almost the same time, manner, a boutique coffee chain brand, also announced that straw made of coffee residue was successively implemented in stores across the country, but Starbucks did not announce the coffee powder circulation process for “residue tube”.
In addition to coming up with new solutions to adjust the defects of new materials, another unsolved problem faced by the brand is the rise in the cost of packaging materials – the cost of plastic straws is 1 cent, while paper straws are about 3 cents and PLA straws are nearly 5 cents. When consumers have long been used to the “bonus” nature of straw, if the increased packaging cost is directly passed on to consumers, it is inevitable to encounter consumer public opinion counterattack.
“The cost of straw at the end of milk tea shop has increased by about three times, but they also have to pay.” this seems to be no problem for head tea brands. According to Yang Hao’s experience, these tea brands with high customer unit price “still have a high acceptance of material cost”.
Other brands simply cancel the straw. McDonald’s China announced on June 30, 2020 that it would phase out the use of plastic straws, which is expected to reduce the consumption of plastic by about 400 tons per year. McDonald’s straw is replaced by a “straw free cup cover” with a drinking nozzle. However, drinks containing mouthfeel such as pearl milk tea still need to be equipped with a straw.
supply chain acceleration
In 2013, Deng Qiyun, who was also studying at the University of art and design in Lausanne, Switzerland, was preparing her graduation project – designing a group of sustainable “disposable” tableware with the shape of vegetables and fruits around PLA. At that time, not only people around them had never heard of PLA, but also it was difficult to find manufacturers producing PLA tableware. After the publication of the work, two European and American brands evaluated the feasibility of mass production, and finally gave up because of the difficulty. “Almost no factory has processing experience, and the design itself involves the process difficulty of gradient color.” Deng Qiyun said.
sustainable “disposable” tableware designed by product designer Deng Qiyun with PLA materials.
At the same time, because the utilization rate of domestic plastics was much higher than that of other degradable materials, Yang Hao’s business has always been dominated by foreign trade, so it was difficult to expand domestic customers. “It’s equivalent that everyone is illiterate in this field, so we have to literacy and popularize knowledge.”
In 2018, the European Union and some major cities in the United States put forward their own “plastic restriction order” scheme, proposed to ban disposable plastic products such as plastic straws, and set a buffer period for catering enterprises and suppliers to transform. Therefore, the foreign trade demand for degradable material products increased significantly. Since then, huiang’s operating revenue has increased by about three times a year.
After the domestic plastic restriction order was issued in 2020, as the impact of the epidemic subsided, the orders for goods preparation in the downstream increased rapidly, accelerating the rhythm of the upstream. More domestic customers and more diversified customized needs force suppliers to respond in time in terms of output, process and formula.
Huiang’s straw business has 10 production lines, with a one-day production capacity of about 5 million. This year, some production lines will be moved to self built factories with an area of more than 3000 square meters, and the proportion of foreign trade and domestic sales will be nearly 50-50.
disposable straw produced by huiang.
“In the past, the largest straw with a diameter of 6mm was produced. Now, due to the large number of milk tea brands, 12mm thick straw is the most. There will also be a demand for 12mm straw abroad, because China’s tea industry has gone out.” Yang Hao told yimagazine that he has also invested a lot of money in auxiliary equipment, such as paper packaging equipment, Because the customer asked for more advanced straw packaging, “some even have to make waterproof film for the packaging, so as not to let the dew on the ice drink seep in during takeout.”
In the past, suppliers of new materials and products were opposed to suppliers of traditional materials and products. Yang Hao recalled that it is basically impossible for an enterprise to produce both, because new materials are considered to be “job grabbing” and can not “fight themselves”. After the change of wind direction, some plastic product suppliers chose to transform and increase or transform the production line of degradable material products.
Yiwu Shuangtong daily necessities Co., Ltd., a leading domestic straw enterprise, once mentioned in an interview that in order to prepare for the “plastic restriction order”, the company has comprehensively upgraded its plants and equipment since March 2020. Only half of the six production workshops produce traditional plastic straw, and the rest are used to produce paper straw and degradable material straw. In the fourth quarter of 2020, the monthly output value increased by 40% to 50%. At present, degradable material products have accounted for more than half of the overall sales of Shuangtong.
According to Yang Hao, the production of disposable straw should go through the steps of pre drying, melting, extrusion and shaping cooling of raw materials. The process is not complicated. The product manufacturer purchases degradable material particles from the raw material manufacturer, and the raw material formula mainly comes from the ready-made “on shelf product scheme” provided by the raw material manufacturer.
The most difficult problem is raw materials. Since the appearance of the plastic restriction order, the overall price of degradable materials has increased. As for the raw pulp of paper straw, the main futures rose all the way from about 4500 yuan per ton in November 2020 to about 7100 yuan per ton in May 2021. The cost price of PLA in 2018 was 18000 yuan per ton, which had risen to 30000 yuan per ton by the end of 2019. It was close to 50000 yuan per ton in 2020 and is now stable at 30000 yuan per ton.
In January 2021, huiang issued an announcement letter on product price adjustment, saying that “due to the continuous rise in the price of raw materials, the cost of the company’s fully degraded production materials increased”, and raised the price of fully degraded raw materials and finished membrane bags by 1500 yuan per ton. Such price increases occur in the whole industry.
All kinds of degradable materials are in short supply for a time, and the shortage of supply will continue. Huaan Securities Research Institute predicts that China’s total consumption of degradable plastics may reach 1.17 million tons in 2021, while the global production capacity of biodegradable plastics will only be about 1.1 million tons in 2019. “The global market growth of PLA is about to double every three to four years,” Zhen Guangming, chief scientist of bioplastics of Huasheng green industry foundation, told yimagazine.
I have a hunch that the node is approaching. Compared with the beginning of 2020, Yang Hao has made strategic procurement six months in advance. At the same time, Xi tea also requires suppliers to lock the quantity to ensure sufficient supply. Yang Hao tried to take goods from some relatively mature domestic raw material suppliers and “make some simple substitutes”.
At present, more than half of the global PLA production capacity is concentrated in NatureWorks in the United States, and the second largest production line is built in Thailand by total corbion PLA in the Netherlands in 2019. There are technical barriers in the production process of PLA raw materials. “The synthesis and purification of lactide from lactic acid to intermediate is a difficulty.” Zhen Guangming said that only a few domestic companies have broken through the barrier. Therefore, many pla raw material manufacturers do not cover the whole chain, so they can only start with the purchase of lactide.
Some small and medium-sized suppliers of plastic products dare not act rashly and continue the production of disposable plastic products for the time being. Zhen Guangming observed that fake plastic bags with degradable labels have appeared on the market, which is difficult to identify with the naked eye alone. If the follow-up supervision does not keep up, downstream customers will inevitably turn back and choose low-cost plastic products.
Yang Hao, who has been only making degradable material products, is optimistic about the future. Although the main identity is still a supplier, he bet on the future direction of C-end consumers. To this end, he specially named his brand “Jiangjie market” and its English name biopoly to prepare for sales in retail channels in the future.
Some trends may confirm that C-end consumers can expect to buy degradable materials directly. Although the volume of disposable straws is very small, the sales of straws made of reusable materials on e-commerce platforms have increased, mainly including stainless steel straws and high borosilicate glass straws, and the buyers are often individual consumers.
Replacing disposable paper straws is one of the reasons why these consumers buy them. In the past, such straws were generally thin in diameter. Now manufacturers have launched more 12mm straws suitable for drinking tea with taste, and equipped with straws storage boxes and cleaning brushes made of stainless steel and wheat straw to facilitate storage and carrying.
last ring not closed
After leaving the head polylactic acid company where he used to work, Zhen Guangming has entered the retirement age, but then engaged in environmental protection, he is more busy than before, and the positions on his business card are connected. Most of the time, he attended industry seminars and held lectures all over the country. There are two main types of questions to ask him. On one hand, upstream and downstream enterprises pouring into the industry need to connect resources, and on the other hand, there is an urgent need to improve policy support. “Now we are crossing the river by feeling the stone, finished waste classification, and announced plastic restriction orders. The next goal is terminal treatment,” Zhen Guangming said.
Degradable materials are generally considered to be “degradable in the natural environment”. In fact, due to the different sources, chemical structures and physical properties of each material, the environment and time required for complete biodegradation are also different.
Take PLA as an example. The ideal degradation environment is under the condition of industrial composting facilities. The temperature is above 58 ° C, the humidity is more than 60%, there is abundant oxygen, and it can be maintained for at least one or two months. The degradation efficiency of degradable material products is also calculated under such conditions.
Xi tea has not marked the specific degradation efficiency and degradation time on the straw packaging for the time being, because it “doesn’t want to cause consumers’ misunderstanding”. “These professional terms are not so easy for consumers to understand thoroughly,” Yu said. In terms of the proportion of waste treatment in China in 2018, sanitary landfill accounted for 49%, incineration accounted for 48%, and the composting capacity was less than 4%. In other words, PLA products can hardly enter an effective industrial composting environment.
If entering the landfill channel, these degradable materials and products will take about 3 to 10 years to degrade, which is theoretically much better than plastics that cannot degrade for three or five hundred years. However, if it enters the incineration system, the result is not different from that of plastics. “Originally, compost can be turned into fertilizer. If you just burn it, you will burn what can be turned into fertilizer into carbon dioxide, and you have to add heavy oil. It violates the concept of carbon neutralization, which is completely meaningless,” Zhen Guangming said.
In addition, the Research Report of Greenpeace pointed out that in order to help the modification of degradable materials and make the steps of demoulding and molding more smooth, auxiliary agents, additives and plasticizers will still be used in the manufacture of biodegradable materials. These auxiliary agents may make the products contain non decomposable fluoride, and their safety has not been clearly confirmed, It will overflow into the natural environment during incineration and landfill.
As an emerging thing, biodegradable plastics have not been clearly marked as the category of waste classification. The products themselves lack unified identification and naming standards, and can not be recycled and treated separately. According to the current domestic waste classification system, consumers intuitively throw degradable materials and products into dry waste or recyclable waste, rather than wet waste that still has the opportunity to be sent to compost.
Considering the imperfect recycling and treatment schemes and insufficient consumer awareness, even countries that implemented the plastic restriction order earlier are quite cautious in the use of biodegradable materials. The EU proposes that more experiments and evaluations are still needed to determine the application scenarios and conditions of biodegradable materials, and plans to establish a corresponding regulatory framework, which will involve the source, naming and identification of raw materials, material degradability certification system, collection and treatment after use, etc. When disposable plastic straws are banned in Los Angeles and Portland, biodegradable plastic straws are also prohibited because there are no supporting terminal treatment facilities in the United States.
In the long and complex industrial chain, it may be difficult for any alternative material to give a perfect answer in terms of Commerce, environmental protection and sustainability.
Paper straws that look natural may not be so environmentally friendly. The trees at the source of pulp need to be cut down and processed, which inevitably involves the emission of pollutants; The plastic coating on the inner side of the paper straw is difficult to separate from the paper, and the mixed material of plastic and paper will be more difficult to deal with; The paper straw that is continuously thickened in pursuit of rigidity may also be too thick to be disposed of like other paper.
Xi tea hopes to recycle plastic products and then create other available conventional or peripheral products. It has opened a separate “counter” in the store, with straws and spoons on the upper layer and trash cans dedicated to recycling plastics, thermal insulation bags and paper on the lower layer.
hi tea is located in an environmental protection store in Shenzhen.
But the trouble is that it is difficult to find manufacturers that can undertake recycling and recycling in the downstream. Suppliers are busy with production and have no energy to upgrade their recycling capacity. “There are some resources in the upstream, but they are scattered and not a complete service chain.” Yu Jinxiu and his team started with the recyclable use of PP products, but there are not many recycling resources available at present, so they can only try plastics first.
Products using degradable materials have expanded from straw to more categories. The PLA products of hi tea have been extended to cup covers, cups and plastic bags, and the pilot stores in Hainan, where plastic is banned in the province, have been opened earlier. Starbucks stores in mainland China will gradually stop using disposable plastic tableware for take out food and replace it with biodegradable wooden tableware. At the same time, it will provide reusable resin cups in the store to replace disposable plastic cups.
Indeed, the green transformation of each link is advancing, from policies, suppliers to brands. However, all results are determined by consumption – without changing the habit of one-time consumption, any alternative material is difficult to eradicate environmental problems.
Deng Qiyun’s work engraft tableware was not actually produced in China until six years later, which was the night before the outbreak of PLA. This set of tableware called “disposable” is actually exquisite, which has a strong irony. “The value of disposable tableware is seriously underestimated. Its sense of cheapness is the result of excessive consumption for decades,” she said. “I think the concept of disposable tableware itself is very doubtful. It is a need to be created.”
The huge discussion caused by the small incision of straw reflects the dependence of consumption upgrading on disposable products, not only in catering, but also in express, takeout and other industries. Just as garbage classification does: make it more troublesome to throw garbage, so as to reduce the amount of garbage. The problem to be solved may not be the material itself, but to curb the proliferation of one-time consumption culture from the source.
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