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U of R research engineer creates innovative alternative to paper straws

A University of Regina (U of R) research engineer has come up with a sustainable solution for the dreaded mushy paper straw.

Using food-grade material and agricultural crop residue, Denise Stilling created a environmentally-friendly straw that won’t disintegrate in your cup.

“Their whole goal is to prevent moisture absorption, so that you can have a sensational drinking experience, rather than a soggy one,” she said during an interview Thursday.

“It’s almost just like making macaroni. We mix it up, we put it through an extruder and presto! You get drinking straws.”

Growing up on a farm, sustainability has always been a part of Stilling’s life.

“When we were done with our corncobs we would feed them to the pigs,” she said . “The whole process of taking scraps and potato peels and putting them back in the garden, and recycling and reusing. I grew up on a mixed farm, so when we cleaned out the barn, that manure and waste went back into our soil and was part of natural fertilizer.”

She has been finding ways to use agricultural waste products since she started working at the U of R in 2005. In the following years, she started making single-use plates out of flax straw.

With the help of a team of graduate students, scientists and researchers, she started the environmentally-friendly drinking straw project just before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

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In 2021, she received a $150,000 grant through the province’s Agriculture Development Fund for her project “Discoveries in Extrusion Pulping Agricultural Crop Residue into Compostable Products.” The research explored how cereal and flax straw could be used to make decomposable drinking straws, stir sticks, container sleeves and medical devices.

“We actually started off thinking we could use Polylactic acid (PLA) because it’s a bioplastic and it’d be (eco) friendly, and then came the legislation where single-use plastics got banned, including PLA material,” she said, adding while PLA is more sustainable than other plastics, the conditions it needs to biodegrade should be considered.

“Until we have the technology to actually have digesters in place, they still take a long time to degrade and then there’s the same environmental hazards or drawbacks with them.”

While paper straws became popular in Canadian restaurants and cafés since the single-use plastic ban was implemented, Stilling says they also have a negative impact on the environment.

“We take a tree that takes like 30 years to grow, so there’s that sort of thing that we’re taking away from the environment,” she said. “As well, the process involves harmful chemicals.”

With the plastic ban and some frustration over the quality of paper straws, Stilling decided it was an opportune time to seek out investors for her product. Her company —  EcoFlexPlus — is currently one of the top 20 Saskatchewan startups competing for capital in this year’s Startup TNT Investment Summit.

“Our real goal is to get out there to the big food franchise groups that are providing us with paper straws and say hey, we’ve got an alternative that is more customer pleasing.”

Mike Woldfeld, Startup TNT Saskatchewan Lead said around 25 companies apply to the investment summit every year. He said the top 20 contenders have the potential to become global businesses.

“We’re investing in a venture capital fashion,” he said. “We’re really looking to invest in high-growth, high-potential companies.”

He said the angel investment group has had over 400 investors invest in 96 companies across western Canada.

During the summit, each investor commits $5,000 before hearing the company’s pitches. After eight weeks of due diligence, one company is chosen to invest in. Startup TNT, and the investors will determine which companies will advance to the top five. Final pitches will be presented on June 13.

“Investing in early-stage startups that are in our local communities is so important,” Woldfeld said. “They need that money to get up and running and grow in the early stages until they can start to access bigger venture capital firms.”

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