Two Purdue University students on a walk across campus turned an observation into an idea. Later, they turned that idea into a product that could increase demand for soybeans and cut down on the amount of nonbiodegradable plastic in landfills.
“We noticed several plastic straws in the trash,” explains Ruth Zhong, Carmel, Ind., a 2019 Purdue senior in electrical engineering. “We already knew that plastic straws had been banned in certain places.
“We got to thinking that if we could make straws from soybeans, we could develop a useful product which would be better for the environment than plastic straws which many people use now.”
Indeed, some governmental agencies have banned plastic straws, and at least some major food chains are considering following suit and banning straws. While straws don’t make up a very big percentage of plastic trash, they’re visible — especially when they wind up littering the ground along sidewalks and highways.
Zhong; Natalie Stephenson, Fairland, Ind., a 2019 senior in the Krannert School of Management; and Morgan Malm, Fort Wayne, Ind., a graduate student in food science, decided to pursue the idea as part of the 2019 Student Soybean Product Innovation Competition. The competition is funded by the Indiana Soybean Alliance through the soybean checkoff and supported by Purdue University.
The students’ quest began in September and concluded in late March at the 25th anniversary awards event for the competition, held at Purdue. Team Stroy captured first place, earning $20,000 from ISA to split among the three team members.
Right product, right time
The very first contest, held in 1994, produced soybean crayons, one of the most recognized products to come out of the competition. Developers of that product say the motivation was similar: developing a product better for the environment and safer all around. Back in the early 1990s, lead paint in products from China was a hot topic that spurred students to look at making a crayon with more natural ingredients.
“Our soy straws also are made of natural ingredients,” Stephenson explains. “We have six ingredients: soybean protein, glycerol, sodium hydroxide, confectioner’s glaze, food coloring and water.”
NEW PRODUCT: The Purdue students who developed these colorful, fully biodegradable drinking straws saw a need to create an environmentally friendly product.
Team Stroy notes that the straws themselves are just under 50% soybean protein. Using food coloring allows them to make straws of different colors. They’re even experimenting with flavored straws.
The real question is how they will hold up, and how fast will they break down?
“They last about an hour in coffee or other hot drinks, and about five hours in soda,” Zhong says. “After that, they begin to break down. They’re totally biodegradable.”
Part of the student competition involves developing potentially viable marketing plans. Time will tell if consumers will be buying soy straws off the grocery store shelf in the future.