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Could rice straws kick single-use plastic products to the curb for good?

Whistler's Nita Lake Lodge, Juice Nation offering Rice Straw Technologies' new, eco-friendly sipping solution

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The war on plastic is officially underway.

As the world quickly begins to realize that this synthetic material is clogging up our rivers, oceans, landfills and even seeping into our soil, at this point it's clear that plastic, in general, kind of sucks.

It sucks so much that some municipalities—including the City of Vancouver—are implementing distribution bans on products like single-use plastic straws.

But unfortunately, sipping an icy beverage without a straw can kind of suck, too—particularly if you're part of the population living with a physical disability or other health concern that makes drinking without a straw nearly impossible.

Although this war on plastic has yielded several innovative alternatives to single-use straws—ranging from paper to metal to compostable plastic—one Vancouver-based start-up has launched a new eco-friendly product that they say is safe for our environment without any of the drawbacks: the rice straw.

Comprised of 50-per-cent finely-ground rice powder and 50-per-cent Tapioca, proponents of the rice straw say this 100-per-cent natural, biodegradable creation has all the necessary ingredients to replace the approximately 57 million plastic straws that are currently used in Canada each day and win the Straw Wars, once and for all.

To begin with, the straws don't sacrifice user-satisfaction, explained Kristi Wells, Regional Sales Director for Rice Straw Technologies.

"It's incredibly sturdy, it actually feels like a strong plastic because it has that very smooth texture to it," said Wells.

The compostable straws can be manufactured in a variety of sizes, and have no taste. They last four to six hours in cold drinks and two to three in hot beverages, according to Rice Straw Technologies, and take a maximum of 100 days to break down—all while remaining entirely edible.

Even when the straws reach their life span, they don't disintegrate the way, say, a flimsy paper straw would. "It gets a bit of a bow in it, as it slowly starts absorbing the liquid, but it's still functional. The hole doesn't close up or anything, it just gets a little bent," Wells explained.

Considering that millions of tonnes of rice are wasted globally each year, rice straws also offer a cost-effective alternative to many of the eco-friendly options that are on the market today, while simultaneously taking aim at curbing food waste, Wells added.

"Rice grows very quickly and it's a very sustainable farmed product, but a lot of the rice, when it's harvested, actually ends up wasted," she explained, referring to misshapen grains that typically wouldn't make it to grocery store shelves. "We're able to collect and use all of that wasted rice, so it fits into that sustainable program as well."

The rice straws are currently more expensive than paper straws but lower than the plant-based plastic straws that can only be composted at commercial facilities.

The idea for rice straws was first conceived by Yeonjigonji, a South Korea-based company, and first hit the market last August.

Vancouver's Rice Straw Technologies, founded in January 2019, is the first to distribute these rice straws in Canada since the rice straw received approval from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Now, they're available in Whistler.

On May 15, Nita Lake Lodge announced it has partnered with Rice Straw Technologies to become Whistler's first business to offer the eco-friendly alternative. The straws are currently available for customers to use at Aura Restaurant, Cure Lounge & Patio and Fix Café.

"We are delighted to welcome a sustainable alternative for guests enjoying cocktails, smoothies or soft drinks in our dining establishments," said Theresa Ginter, general manager at Nita Lake Lodge in a release. "As we are surrounded by such an abundance of natural beauty, we are inspired to help do our part in keeping our mountains, lakes and forests in pristine condition."

Juice Nation Organic Café, a local food truck that can be found at the Whistler Farmers' Market and several Whistler Parks this summer, has also since hopped aboard the rice-straw train.

"Our company really feels like Whistler is the perfect community to sort of showcase and embrace this initiative and set an example," Wells said, adding that customer feedback at their first Farmers' Market appearance with Juice Nation, "was really positive."

"I think people are really looking for alternatives. We're blessed to be in a community where our awareness is so high ... to protect what we've been blessed with," she added.

Next up, Rice Straw Technologies is hoping to use the same materials and formula to bring biodegradable, single-use cutlery to the market.

Rice straws are not currently available for retail purchase, but are available for distribution to restaurants and bars. For more information, head to ricestraw.ca or contact Kristi Wells at Kristi@ricestraw.ca.

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