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19-Year-Old South African’s Biodegradable Straws Are Awesome. Here Is Why

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After a bottle of drink, the plastic straw becomes useless. Imagine how many of them gets discarded every day around the globe. These non-biodegradable plastics cause both land and sea pollution. Recently, there was a Facebook post of a plastic straw stuck in the nose of a sea turtle. After reading about the sea turtle, 19-year-old Leila Siljeur decided to do something. This was the birth of edible straw.

Leila Siljeur’s edible straw is totally biodegradable and environment-friendly. Now, you can use your straw and eat it. The innovation has earned the second-year Chemical Engineering student at Stellenbosch University (SU) R50,000 at the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation National Jamboree. Speaking on the difference between her straw and others Leila Siljeur said,

“Even though companies are producing biodegradable straws, some still end up in the ocean, posing a threat to marine life. The great thing is, even if you do not want to eat it, you can simply throw it out into the garden and it biodegrades.”

The challenge of making an edible straw

Leila Siljeur displaying her edible straw

There were lots of challenges that Leila Siljeur and her team had to surmount to create an edible straw. According to the teenager, the research began with trying out different deglazing, emulsifying, and binding agents. The major challenge was balancing the components so that it remains edible and non-sticky in order not to affect the taste of the customer’s drink.

“I started playing around with jelling agents and flavoring agents. I was messing around in the kitchen and in the lab.”

The texture of the straw comes from a mixture of dried fruit and licorice. Leila Siljeur’s edible straw is registered as ‘Eat Me Straws’. The straw comes in three variants namely vegan, health, and regular. Unlike paper straws, they don’t get mushy or collapse when immersed in a wet substance. There is more to admire about the straw as Siljeur explains,

“The straws can be colored and flavored as per customer specifications. We use different bases for the three ranges – gelatine for regular straws, plants for vegan straws and fruit for the health variety.”

Leila Siljeur’s plan for her innovative product

For a year now, Leila Siljeur and her team have been selling small batches of the edible straw to SU students. Although the trade was informal, it has helped the team to get genuine feedback on the product. However, her goal is to sell to big businesses. According to her, the R50,000 price will go into the development of the product and business plan.

“We want to sell a massive batch to different businesses. We ideally would like to roll out in fast food chains like KFC, McDonalds and health shops… so that they can distribute them. Then it doesn’t come directly out of the consumer’s pocket.”

Leila Siljeur is currently in talks with SU’s Consulting Society and Accenture in Cape Town. The edible straw currently retails at R2 each. However, the price will drop significantly as soon as she begins to produce in mass.

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