Airport-based facility to boost production of compostable straws

· The Pulse

Plant Plus, which produces compostable straws using a novel plant-fibre polymer, is planning to boost production thanks to an upgraded facility in the Edmonton region.

Alfie Hsu, founder and CEO of Plant Plus, told Taproot that construction of its expanded facility at the Edmonton International Airport (YEG) should be finished by June. Once complete, the company will be able to grow production by a factor of eight, from about one million straws per month to as many as eight million.

"People are not a fan of paper straws," he said. "In reality, we have to have more ways to solve the problem."

The straws that Plant Plus manufactures use less energy and water than paper straws. They are also reusable, non-toxic, and fully compostable, Hsu said.

The company's analysis suggests that its straws could reduce overall emissions by anywhere from 27% to 70% compared to plastic straws. "If they're composted, we can get close to the 70% mark," Hsu said. The lower end of the range would be if the straws ended up in the landfill.

One of the barriers to wider adoption is cost. Hsu said the company's straws currently cost about four cents per straw (down from about 12 cents per straw when they started), compared to three cents per straw for paper and less than one cent per straw for plastic.

"We think we can get that cost down eventually, thanks to the new facility and the use of local materials."

Plant Plus has been working with Alberta's Bio Processing Innovation Centre to look at using the byproducts of common provincial crops, such as hemp and sugar beet.

"We cannot just import and say we can solve the problem, we have to think about being local," Hsu said.

He's also hoping to develop broader connections with other local businesses, including distributors and waste management companies. "We want to link our solution to support the circular economy."

Machines in a factory

The upgraded manufacturing facility that Plant Plus operates at YEG should be finished by June. (Supplied)

Founded in 2018 in Vancouver as an importer, Plant Plus moved to Edmonton in 2020, setting up shop at YEG's Airport City.

"Myron saw the product we were producing and knew we were looking for space, so invited us to come to the airport," Hsu said, referring to Myron Keehn, now president and CEO of YEG. "When I moved to Edmonton, I saw lots of potential in Alberta."

Plant Plus started by making its straws using technology from Taiwan and importing sugarcane fibre. Hsu said it was important that the company actually prove the technology worked, so it sought an analysis by the Compost Manufacturing Alliance.

"In the past, there has been a lot of biodegradable products on the market, but often they aren't actually biodegradable," he said. "We needed to get it tested and proven."

The analysis, completed in 2019, found that Plant Plus's straws will fully decompose in four to six weeks. With that proof in hand, Hsu said he felt confident in moving forward.

While it might seem like another barrier to the adoption of Plant Plus's products, Edmonton's recently approved single-use item reduction bylaw could result in greater awareness and education for people about the overall problem, Hsu said. That and the federal government's ban on single-use plastics, which started to come into effect in December 2022, could be good for business.

But Hsu isn't losing sight of the bigger picture.

"Plastic waste is just part of the challenge," he said. "We have to consider all the detail when it comes to climate change action."