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Parklands College - Kelp Drinking Straws Invention Wins Gold At Cape Town Expo For Young Scientists

Every year Parklands College runs an internal Science Expo for its cohort of Grade 10 Physical Science learners. The Expo offers opportunities for investigations following the Scientific Method and Engineering and Design Process.

Shreya Singh, a Grade 10 learner, at the College decided to investigate the possibility of making drinking straws from kelp in an attempt to find an alternative to paper straws. Other issues that were simultaneously addressed were finding a use for the excessive amount of kelp being washed up on the Cape shores, as well as the world-wide move away from using single-use plastic items.

The waters of the Atlantic seaboard are rich in kelp beds, a microcosm of copious biodiversity. The prevailing winds and rough seas cause fronds of kelp to wash up on to the beaches. This is in fact an important ecological event as sedentary black mussels, attached to the kelp fronds, washes up with the kelp and serves as a rich food source for the ever-present gulls and other sea birds. However, these kelp fronds start to decay and become a problem for the City of Cape Town municipality, which has teams that remove them on a regular basis.

The main problem with paper straws is that they have an incredibly short durability range. Some straws end up falling apart and semi-disintegrating into the drink after only a couple of minutes. They are also made of paper and therefore obviously contribute to the world's growing deforestation problem. Whilst we can always grow more trees, it takes longer for the trees to grow than it takes for us to cut them down. Shreya tested kelp as a possible material due to the fact that it was very easy to access, and is an aquatic plant that grows quickly.

After observing and researching some key issues, Shreya found that the paper alternative collapses quickly while other ecologically friendly types are impractical and expensive to produce. Kelp, although not an obvious alternative, turned out to be a fascinating material with which to work. The immediate goals were to improve on what are considered to be the faults in the variety of straws currently available. Structural integrity and no taste transfer to common types of drinks served at restaurants and other food outlets were the main focus. Kelp, being an organic material, had to be processed to sterilise it and also to make it easier to mould. Shreya's first few prototypes provided her with a steep learning curve as she tweaked the various parameters to lead her to her final product, which she is proud to say, outlasted and outperformed the paper alternative.

A bountiful raw material and a complex, but inexpensive production process, make kelp straws a viable alternative to what is widely used as alternatives to plastic drinking straws. This project was entered in the Cape Town Expo for Young Scientists and won a gold medal. A visiting professor from the University College of Ireland was impressed enough by the innovation to offer Shreya a partial scholarship to the university.

We are very proud of this humble but very bright young scientist and wish her all the best with this breakthrough, environmentally friendly invention

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