Crop residue may be turned into decomposable straws

Denise Stilling, a researcher at the University of Regina, conducts an experiment as part of her research with decomposable straws. | Denise Stilling photo

Researcher receives $150,000 grant for work on pulping flax straw and turning it into drinking straws that can decompose

When Denise Stilling grew up on a farm, she saw what it meant to reuse materials in a way that isn’t done anywhere else.

“I remember as a kid, we reused that plastic twine and that hemp twine and we’d make hammocks for us to play on,” Stilling said. “So I kind of grew up with that sort of culture, reusing and making the best of the material we have.”

Now, as a researcher with the University of Regina, Stilling is conducting research on turning crop products into compostable drinking straws. She was funded $150,000 through Saskatchewan’s Agricultural Development Fund.

“This proposal specifically is looking at using some of our crop residue like using the waste straw or other things that don’t have an immediate commercial value, and try to transform it into something of value,” she said.

COVID-19 delayed their start, but now they are doing preliminary research to gauge current paper straws.

“In the past couple of years, lots of paper straws have hit the market but most of those paper straws get mushy, they biodegrade maybe a little bit too fast, and don’t necessarily have the characteristics that we were used to in the plastic straws,” Stilling said. “And so I’m looking at the structural integrity.”

Her and her team judge a paper straw by its tension, compression and absorption.

For tension, they judge what it takes to pull the straws apart.

For compression, they judge the force it takes for a straw to collapse.

For absorption, how quickly it takes for the straw to fall apart in a liquid.

“We’ve measured it and paired the ones that are sort of on the marketplace, just to do some kind of a sample so that we could set up what is functional criteria when we start manufacturing ours from our Saskatchewan crop residue.”

These experiments are to set a base line. Stilling and her team then plan to start experiments of making the actual straws, which consists of pulping flax straw to turn it into decomposable straws.

“They’ll (master’s students) start to work with the production of the straw, rather than the testing of the current straws,” Stilling said.

She said this research isn’t only important for the environment — it’s also important for agriculture.

“It’s very important for value-added research for agriculture, they provide that secondary income source,” she said.

Stilling expects the study to take another two to three years. However, she doesn’t want this movement to end with her research.

“I don’t want to say, ‘oh, yeah, we can make a straw, isn’t that cool?’ but actually have it be an economic, viable process,” she said. “So that we can create those circular economies, we become less dependent on things that become harmful to the environment.”

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