Jose Cuervo plans to introduce biodegradable straws made from agave fibers left over after tequila-making. In 2020, millions of these straws will be rolled out at bars, restaurants and events across North America as a new way to sip margaritas and the like.
The creation is part of the duly named Agave Project, which aims to celebrate this storied Mexican ingredient and find more ways to use it. Through the project, in-house innovators and conservationists have created a guitar, surfboard and even car parts using upcycled agave fibers.
Jose Cuervo's design replaces about a third of the polymers used in a traditional straw with an agave-based alternative. Compared to paper and metal straws, the agave-based product has a mouthfeel that's similar to a traditional straw. And it won't dissolve in your drink as paper straws tend to do. Still, the agave straws decompose up to 200 times faster than their plastic counterparts and can fully biodegrade within five years in landfill conditions, according to Jose Cuervo.
The biodegradable straws also utilize more of the agave plant than just what is needed to produce tequila, taking better advantage of a plant that takes about six years to mature before being harvested. The tequila-making process generates thousands of tons of pulp, which distillers can recycle as fuel or compost. With this new process, the company can also upcycle the fibrous pulp into straws.
Furthermore, biodegradable plastic alternatives like these reduce air pollution and save energy by minimizing dependence on petroleum-based polymers. When plastic is produced, it emits toxins like benzene, xylene, carbon monoxide, ozone, particulate matter, and many other fumes that pollute the air and lungs. And the oil extraction and fossil fuel refinement needed to make plastic release their own toxic gases and carcinogenic vapors into the environment. The production of agave straws, however, doesn't require harsh chemicals or oils, reducing pollution and improving efficiency.
Agave straws are just one more step toward reducing plastic waste and the negative byproducts of its production. Scientists estimate there are 8.3 billion plastic straws littering shorelines worldwide, harming wildlife and disrupting ocean ecosystems.
A biodegradable alternative could reduce this staggering number. But straws only make up a small percentage of the more than 8 million metric tons of plastic that float into the ocean each year.
Although the biodegradable straws are a positive change, the initiative is arguably only a drop in the bucket of a much larger problem. In fact, alcohol production itself leaves a major carbon footprint: Every bottle of alcohol produced equates to roughly 6.3 pounds of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere on average. This makes distillation the No. 1 contributor to a spirit's carbon footprint.
But the public isn’t likely to give up stiff drinks any time soon, so several distilleries are searching for new ways to reduce their negative impact on the environment. Some convert their spent grain into animal feed while others locally source their grain or use food waste to produce spirits.
For its part, Jose Cuervo says it’s leveraging agave to support community development in Tequila, Mexico, providing agave fibers for local businesses to use in their products and funding other community efforts through its foundation.
While every company works individually to reduce its footprint, their efforts combine to create change. So, even though a simple biodegradable straw may seem like an insignificant change, this small difference—when paired with many other small efforts—could, over time, culminate to create lasting change.
Image credit: Jose Cuervo
*This story was updated on 12/19/2019
Jenna Tsui is a technology journalist who covers the latest news in technology, disruptive tech, and environmental science. You can read more of her work at The Byte Beat.