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May 08, 2023

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'Rube Goldberg machine' churns out 25,000 straws a day to satisfy some of the

'Rube Goldberg machine' churns out 25,000 straws a day to satisfy some of the local demand for single-use products.

It was the sight of bottle caps, straws and other plastics strewn across the beach, and evidence from around the world of sea animals dying from ingesting single-use wastes, that spurred Leslie Beckmann and Dave Giesbrecht to help turn things around.

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The steps the North Vancouver couple chose to take were to import, as Beckmann called it, "a Rube Goldberg machine" — that being a complicated and seemingly over-engineered contraption that performs a simple task — from China, plunk it down in a warehouse in Burnaby and start the first paper-straw-manufacturing business in B.C.

Beckmann and Giesbrecht's move to start production earlier this year came amid continuing policy steps by local governments like the City of Vancouver to cut our reliance on straws and many other single-use plastics.

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"A lot of people are now saying, ‘Well, why straws?’ " she said. "There are so many other problems that are so much bigger. This is just a pretty, sexy kind of thing to do, but it doesn't really matter. Our view was something was better than nothing."

Yet Beckmann and Giesbrecht's company, Waterhorse Paper Straws, is doing far from nothing. It now produces more than 25,000 environmentally conscious, local straws a day. At full steam the company could effectively eliminate the need for as many as 5.4 million pieces of plastic per year from the region's waste stream, and they now have a second machine en route that will be able to produce three times that.

The machine's manufacturing process is complicated, with rollers, reels, glue baths, twisters and cutters all working away to turn big spools of paper into small tubes.

The straws can be purchased online direct from the company in small batches. Costs vary depending on the product, but 210, six-millimetre straws run for $13, with commercial prices available.

For Beckmann, the paper straws that come out of the machine are superior to plastic, "compostable" straws for several reasons. Unlike plastics, paper straws can be tossed into green bins, and those that escape our collection systems won't stick around for long. In contrast, compostable plastics require dedicated processes and facilities to biodegrade and they can't be chucked out along with organic waste.

Vancouver is in the midst of working out the details of a bylaw covering an expected ban on all types of unnecessary plastic straws by April 2020. That bylaw is slated to go before council in late November. The proposed bylaw "would require food vendors to provide a bendable plastic straw upon request when needed for accessibility," according to the city.

Vancouver is also approaching a Jan. 1, 2020, ban on foam cups and takeout containers. There are some exemptions to the ban, but businesses will be prohibited from using those products, including existing stock, by that date.

Small pieces of foam made up nine per cent of the trash collected during shoreline cleanups in Vancouver in 2016, according to the city. By comparison, plastic straws and stir sticks made up about three per cent of shoreline litter. Plastic bags comprise another three per cent.

A whopping 22 per cent of trash on Vancouver streets are disposable cups, lids and sleeves, and about half of the garbage collected from public waste bins is takeout containers and cups, according to the city.

Beckmann said it's not easy for consumers to consistently choose environmentally friendly options given the prevalent use of plastics in shops.

"I think we’ve got a long way to go," she said. But, in her opinion, people were starting to pay attention to wastes they create and the life cycles of products.

It turns out her own company recently found a way to reuse some of the wastes it generates, when a beekeeper called to say they could use cast-off straws to build bee houses.

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