The man behind this innovative new straw alternative is Saji Varghese, an English Professor who works at Christ University in Bengaluru, India. Even though science is not his field of study, he has a keen interest in helping communities and social causes through innovative thinking. It’s with this mindset that he discovered this unconventional use for coconut leaves.
Coconut leaves are brittle when dried, but when they are soaked, they become soft. Professor Varghese discovered that cleansed leaves also produce a thin waxy layer (which gives the leaf its antifungal properties). This wax gives it a hydrophobic nature (i.e. water repelling) that makes it especially useful when made into straws. In fact, paper straws need to be dipped in beeswax to give it the same type of hydrophobic properties, otherwise they will disintegrate while you’re still drinking your beverage.
But producing a material that’s resistant to water was only their first step in creating the ideal environmentally-friendly straw. They had to do more than simply rolling up a leaf, because when they did this, they noticed that small holes on the leaf’s surface prevented the straw from working properly. After more than 3000 hours of researching, Professor Varghese settled on the finished designed – a double-layered straw with a food-grade adhesive (imported from the United States). The two layers, together with the natural wax coating, allowed liquids to easily move through without any suction issues. Unlike paper straws, these ones won’t get soggy. They have a three-month shelf life and are 100% biodegradable.
For Professor Varghese, these straws do more than simply preventing plastic waste. They also provide an income for women of rural areas that would otherwise have no employment. His plan is to set up a rural enterprise that will provide employment for women living in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Goa.
It’s been three years since Professor Varghese invented coconut leaf straws, and since then, the straws have been exported to various other countries. Currently, he is able to produce 150 to 300 straws from one coconut leaf, but he’s also looking into other technology that will help to improve the production process. At the moment, the COVID pandemic has somewhat hindered expansion, but as soon as it’s over, he plans on distributing his straws to more outlets.