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Woods Hole scientists develop a plastic straw that breaks down in the ocean faster than paper

Straws are ones of the most commonly found sources of marine litter.
Bryan James, WHOI
Straws are ones of the most commonly found sources of marine litter.

Plastic straws are a common piece of trash that end up on Cape Cod beaches. But how long does it take for one that ends up in the ocean to break down?

Local researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have been working to find the answer.

WHOI scientist Collin Ward said his lab has also been motivated to see if they could find a better option than paper straws.

“So, they get soggy, they break up in your drink. Consumers don’t like them. And I don’t like them. So, finding alternatives that simultaneously meet consumer needs, but also degrade if they incidentally leak, has become a priority of our research.”

To mimic the ocean, Ward’s team placed different kinds of straws in a tank where water from Vineyard Sound was continuously pumped into it.

The experiment lasted for 16 weeks. Ward, along with fellow WHOI scientists Bryan James, Chris Reddy, and Yanchen Sun, found common plastic straws did not degrade at all. Meanwhile, paper straws had a life span of about 2 years.

Ward said this suggests the alternative straws are breaking down in the ocean while the commonly-used plastic straws are contributing to plastic pollution.

The team also developed a new kind of plastic straw that’s derived from wood and degrades even faster than paper straws do.

WHOI worked with plastics manufacturer Eastman to develop the prototype.

Ward said these kinds of joint partnerships are rare.

“Often because there’s this stigma to working with industry. So, I’m hoping that this study is a great example of how shedding the stigma and embracing industry-academic partnerships leads to rapid and interdisciplinary discoveries that would not be possible if we worked in our own little silos.”

The prototype straw is a bioplastic, meaning it’s not made from fossil fuels.

The team used foaming, or increasing the surface area of the straw, to speed up its degradation.

Brian Engles is an author, a Cape Cod local, and a producer for Morning Edition.