Dear Dot: Is Wheat Straw … Plastic?

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Dear Dot,

Is plastic made from wheat straw (and what does that even mean, anyway?) really eco-friendly? Just looking at it/feeling it, it appears to be regular old plastic.

–Paul Allman

Dear Paul,

As Mr. Maguire famously said to his daughter’s boyfriend, Ben (played to perfection by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate), “I just want to say one word to you, Ben [errr Paul], one word. … Plastics.” And indeed, plastics have lived up to their hype, eclipsing just about all other materials. Consequently, they’ve  become so ubiquitous in our water, soil, and food that microplastics (and sometimes larger plastic items) are now found inside pretty much all living things, from sharks to turtles to … human testicles (and other human parts). The New England Journal of Medicine recently published findings showing that the presence of microplastics was associated with a roughly quadrupled risk of heart disease or stroke, an increased risk that one cardiovascular researcher called “stunning.”

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Reducing our use of plastics is of paramount importance. It can also feel impossible. And yet, petroleum-based plastic is a relatively new material. Prior to its invention, humans often relied on ivory and coral, among other natural materials, problematic for different reasons than plastic. Plastic has only become ubiquitous in the past century, gaining momentum with each passing decade. And though it has permeated so many aspects of our lives, it’s possible, with just a little imagination, to determine where we can do without it. Exhibit A: straws. 

There are straw bans in a number of countries (you can see a few of them here) along with bans on other single-use plastics such as bags. 

The thing with bans, though, is that you have to offer people an alternative. Even better … a cheap alternative. And even better, a better alternative. And, thus far, paper ain’t it. Not just because paper straws tend to get soggy when wet, but also because there’s some evidence that paper straws, in order to not entirely disintegrate, contain some so-called forever chemicals

Enter the alternatives: stainless steel, bamboo (Dot’s personal favorite), and plastic-like products like wheat straw.

But though wheat straw might feel like conventional petroleum-based plastic to you, my skeptical friend, rest assured it is a bioplastic made from the waste products of wheat harvesting — biodegradable and entirely plant-based.

Dot’s dogged researcher Emily reports that “wheat straw is made with broken-down lignin, a complex organic polymer that forms the structure of plants and stabilizes their shape. Once the lignin is broken down by a bacteria found in soil called Rhodococcus jostii, it is mixed with sugar to produce the plastic-like material.” This “plastic-like material” is then used to make dishes, storage containers, cutlery, and more.

And there’s more good news, Paul. Not only is the product itself biodegradable and plant-based, but the production of it “takes significantly less energy,” Emily reports. When you’re done with it? Toss it in your at-home compost bin where it will break down in less than a half-year, or give it up to a municipal system where it will transform into compost in one to two months. 

Beware, though, that the product you’re using is 100% wheat straw. Using wheat straw as a secondary material to a non-disposable product in order to boost eco bona fides will only lead to the product breaking down more quickly and require a higher rate of consumption to replace it. 

All in all, Paul, I just want to say two words to you: Wheat straw.

Nostalgically,

Dot

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