Student inventor swaps plastic straws for ice
How do you make a drinking straw that won’t hurt sea life when it inevitably ends up in the ocean? For Ridgefield sixth-grader Sophie Zezula, the answer was obvious — you make the straw out of ice.
Her “sNOw Straw,” a drinking straw made entirely of frozen water, recently competed in both the state and national Invention Convention.
And the soon-to-be-11-year-old recently took the first steps toward filing a patent for the straw, which she says takes about 45 minutes to an hour to freeze.
Sophie said she hit upon the idea during a brainstorming session while out at a restaurant with her family.
“I was looking around at all these people with straws on their table and straws in their drinks, and they only use them for a couple of minutes,” Sophie told The Press.
Plastic straws, she said, are then “brought into landfills, where they make their way into the ocean and hurt marine animals and plants.”
Her family helped her brainstorm for an alternative to plastic.
“My mom was like, ‘what about candy?’ My dad was like, ‘What about food materials?’ and I was like, ‘What about ice?’” the young inventor recalled. “We went home and we were trying to make all these different molds for it.”
The mold Sophie ended up with works a little like an ice-cube tray.
Water is poured in a reusable clear-plastic tube with a rubber stopper (she repurposed a wine-
stopper) at one end. A metal rod — she uses a meat skewer — runs down the center of the tube to form the inside of the straw, and is secured in the center of the tube with a piece of tinfoil wrap.
Up close, the finished straw looks a little like a very thin icicle. Sophie said she’s had success storing the straws for longer periods of time by packing them in dry ice — frozen carbon dioxide.
During the national Invention Convention, Sophie said she and her mom had trouble finding a freezer to use to make demonstration straws. Instead they used a container of dry ice to freeze a handful of molds.
Last week, she filed a provisional patent to protect her idea from copycat inventions.
“That was cool,” Sophie said. “We met with this guy and we would talk to him about [the straw] and he would design pictures of it.”
“It’s pretty cool how you can make such like a simple thing sound so fancy,” she added.
The straw stays frozen long enough to have a drink.
“They stay for a couple of minutes but they do eventually melt away — they don’t stay for as long as an actual straw would, but they stay long enough,” Sophie said.
Unlike a metal straw, the ice doesn’t change the taste of a drink.
“It’s like having an ice cube,” she said. “It’s like putting a really long ice cube in your drink.”
Sophie said she envisions distributing the “sNOw Straw” kit to restaurants to make their own straws in the freezer.
Restaurants, she pointed out, serve drinks with a plastic straw without a customer asking for them.
“You end up using a lot more plastic straws than you would if you had the choice to use one or not.”
Reduce, reuse, recycle
Sophie was inspired to find an alternative to plastic straws after her mother showed her several video clips of animals that were injured by plastic that found its way into the wild, including a viral video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw lodged deep in its nose.
“From there on out, at restaurants and such, we essentially refused straws,” said Sophie’s mom, Tiffany Zezula.
“My mom has always encouraged me and my sister to reduce usage on plastic materials, like plastic straws and plastic bags,” Sophie said.
It’s a timely invention, as several national brands this year announced plans to cut back or eliminate plastic straws and other single-use plastics in the near future. Starbucks and Disney were among the major retailers who said they have plans to reduce or eliminate plastic straws and stirrers.
Starbucks said in early July that the coffee giant would eliminate plastic straws at its 28,000 coffee shops entirely by 2020. The straws will be replaced by a strawless plastic lid or an “alternative-material straw,” the company said in a press release on July 9.
The idea of eliminating plastic straws and other single-use plastics has begun to catch on in Ridgefield, but some business owners say the cost of doing so is prohibitive (see story on page 2A).
Sophie said she recently met with members of the Ridgefield Action Committee on the Environment (RACE) to talk about her invention and the committee’s plan to start a green initiative to reduce the use of plastics by businesses in town.
This week, she’s headed to East Ridge Middle School for the first time as a rising sixth grader.
She told The Press she wasn’t sure if she’d pursue a career in science.
“I might want to do something with the environment,” Sophie said. “It would be cool to keep helping like I am now — it would be cool to keep pursuing that.”
As for any future ideas on how to reduce the amount of plastic society uses?
“I have ideas, but I can’t tell you them,” she said with a grin.