How the Plastic Straw Got Canceled

One day in 2015, swimming in waters off Costa Rica, a sea turtle felt himself brusquely hauled from the ocean and onto the deck of a small boat. He struggled against the human hands pinning down his flippers. He endured a biopsy and was affixed with a metal tag. When the researchers noticed an object obstructing his left nostril, they came at him with good intentions and a pair of pliers.

Christine Figgener, a marine biology grad student aboard the boat, filmed with her phone as a colleague tried to yank some sort of tube from the turtle’s nose. At first, Figgener thought it might be a worm. Then she saw it was a piece of plastic. “Is that a freaking straw?” she exclaimed, outrage blooming in her voice. Indeed, it was. In time, the straw was plucked from the turtle’s nose and the sad, green fellow liberated. But Figgener—who’d been researching turtle behavior in pursuit of her Ph.D. and had seen marine life tormented by plastic junk countless times before—could not stop fuming as the boat returned to shore. It was, if you will, the last straw.

“I remember my mind racing about what to do with this video,” Figgener told me when I spoke to her recently. “Because I remember feeling it was evidence that I couldn’t keep to myself. I also didn’t want to shoulder it by myself anymore. Other people can sleep soundly every night because they don’t have to see that.” She uploaded the clip to her little-used YouTube channel. The next evening, after hours out on the boat, she logged back on to discover the post had racked up 20,000 views. Another couple of days and it was half a million. Now, four years later, her video has been watched more than 37 million times.

It’s easy to see why this short film went viral. For one, the turtle is a star. His large, friendly eyes wince in pain as the straw is extracted. His suffering is steeped in ancient, reptilian nobility. There’s also narrative tension: What is that object? Will they get it out of him? And then the horrifying reveal: Gasp, a plastic straw! Coupled with Figgener’s irate, ad-libbed narration, it’s a compelling document. The path from slurping a Diet Mountain Dew to injuring a sea turtle has never been more succinctly captured.

But the video didn’t just get clicks. It inspired an uprising. In the years since Figgener filmed that agonized turtle, plastic straw restrictions have passed in Seattle, D.C., California, and England, to name just a few places. More straw laws—it’s hard to keep track of them all—are working their way through municipalities across the country and the world. Major companies like Starbucks, Whole Foods, and Disney have vowed to cut plastic straws from their corporate diets. In many bars and restaurants, you now need to make a special request to get a straw, and when it’s grudgingly trotted out, it’s made of paper, or hay, or avocado seeds. “It was the beginning of an interesting movement,” says Figgener of her video. “Nowadays, that turtle is a poster child.”

Straw activists argue that the best thing for the environment would be to cut out straws altogether. But if you’ve got to use one, they say, at least make it paper. Unlike plastic straws, which can sit in landfills and oceans for hundreds of years, paper straws biodegrade as quickly as a couple of months after they’re discarded. That means they won’t become part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or wash up in clumps on beaches, or, yes, injure charismatic animals. And switching to paper does make a lot of sense—until you’re trying to suck a ginger ale through a cardboard straw that collapses into mush the moment it meets your lips.

In part because of how rapidly the plastic straw went from normal object to Not OK, and in part because of how shoddy some of the paper replacements have been, the right has turned straws into a new front in America’s culture war. To the Make Straws Great Again crowd, paper straws are a symbol of the liberal nanny state run amok. Or, as a Sept. 9 Trump campaign email put it:

The Democrats have shown that there is truly no limit to how far left they will go in their climate crusade. In addition to other countless liberal ideas, they’ve publicly stated they want to BAN STRAWS—can you believe it?

Their answer to everything is MORE government control and LESS individual freedom. They want to control every aspect of YOUR life—and banning straws is only the beginning.

President Trump wants to send them a message, so he’s calling on EVERY AMERICAN PATRIOT to get their Official Trump Straws, to show the Democrats that AMERICA WILL NEVER BE A SOCIALIST NATION.

The email links to the campaign’s merch page, where a pack of 10 red plastic straws goes for $15. After a similarly heated July email (“Much like most liberal ideas, paper straws don’t work and they fall apart instantly”), sales of these straws reportedly earned the campaign $670,000 in one month.

It makes sense that Donald Trump’s minions identified profit opportunity lurking in all the straw chaos. Because once you set aside the political posturing, the internet takes, and, not for nothing, the potential reduction in single-use debris fouling our waterways, this turns into a business story. The most tangible result of straw activism has been upheaval in the straw industry.

People in the straw game point to Figgener’s video as a detonator that’s exploded their little corner of the food packaging and accessories sector. Companies that were already making paper straws have seen sales rocket, while new startups have appeared from nowhere to meet the rising demand (and deal with that mush problem). Meanwhile, manufacturers of plastic straws seem, in the long term, screwed. An executive at Dart Container (you might know them as the people who make Solo cups, but they’ve also been a major plastic straw manufacturer) told me that the company, seeing the writing on the wall, opted in April to stop making straws. Instead, Dart has developed a strawless lid—a sort of sippy-cup top—that it hopes will obviate the need for straws entirely.

Basically, the global market for stuff that helps you drink liquid without spilling is now in disarray. And anyone who makes plastic products is wondering: What’s getting canceled next?

Once upon a time, straws were made of … straw. Or, more accurately, hollow stalks of rye grass. They tended to dissolve in liquid and imparted a flavor to beverages. In 1888, a man named Marvin Stone invented the paper straw. It was a huge improvement and eventually dominated the market. Then came the plastics explosion. Plastic straws didn’t wither and could survive an inadvertent bending. The mid-20th-century advent of plastic straws made paper straws nearly obsolete.

The paper straw biz became a sleepy cul-de-sac populated mostly by Chinese companies manufacturing straws of dubious quality from dubious materials. Paper straws are harder to make than plastic straws because you need to braid and glue together layers of paper at precise tension instead of just melting some plastic nurdles and extruding them into a tube shape. So, given a widespread feeling that plastic straws worked great, and a general lack of concern about plastic pollution, the market for paper straws was, for a long time, limited.

There did exist at least one high-end, American paper straw manufacturer. The Indiana-based Aardvark Straws can actually trace its corporate lineage back to Marvin Stone, the paper straw’s inventor. Pre–turtle video, Aardvark catered primarily to people who wanted patterns or logos printed on their straws, because that’s easier to do on paper than on plastic.

Then, last year, when the plastic straw bans hit, Aardvark’s sales quintupled. By August 2018, having suddenly and miraculously transformed into a hot property, Aardvark found itself acquired by a much larger Wisconsin company called Hoffmaster Group, which in turn is owned by a New York private equity firm called Wellspring Capital Management. An influx of investment allowed Aardvark to ramp up production, and it is now at eight times the capacity it was a year ago. That’s still not enough to keep up with the gush of orders from restaurants scrambling to comply with new straw laws and norms. A bunch of opportunistic entrepreneurs have leapt in to grab the overflow business.

Among these entrepreneurs is 33-year-old Brent Ohlendorf, the chief operating officer of OK Straw, which launched last year. OK makes its paper straws in China, but, says Ohlendorf, these are premium straws constructed with top-shelf, Food and Drug Administration–approved papers and glues. When customers want to contact a rep, they needn’t send an email to a Mandarin speaker on the other side of the world because—as I discovered when I first called the company’s main number— they can get Ohlendorf, picking up with a cheery greeting, on the phone in California. “Service as strong as the straw” is his motto. The business model is Chinese manufacturing costs, American imprimatur.

Ohlendorf’s partner is a 54-year-old Chinese man named Jiang Jingchun who’d previously made most of his money exporting silica. They met because Jiang owns a house in the San Diego suburbs next door to Ohlendorf’s cousin. In the spring of last year, sensing that legislation against plastic straws was gathering momentum, they hatched a plan. They quickly established a 30-employee paper straw factory in southern China. Then they opened a distribution center, about the size of a two-car garage, in a light industrial park in northern San Diego. When I visited, it was just Ohlendorf, Jiang, Jiang’s 23-year-old son Jackson (who referenced the turtle video and called it “really emotional”), and two other employees. This was the sum of their U.S. workforce. All five men were wearing matching green OK Straw T-shirts.

As we discussed the ins and outs of food-grade materials and wholesale restaurant supply, the OK Straw team pressed some of its paper straw products into my hands. There was the top-of-the-line, four-ply “steakhouse” straw they consider their flagship. (Older-generation Chinese paper straws were two-ply, and even good paper straws are often only three-ply.) There was their fast-selling boba tea straw, with a wide mouth for sucking up tapioca pearls and a pointy tip for stabbing through cup lids. (Ohlendorf says the plentiful boba tea shops in San Francisco got desperate when that city’s ban took effect in July, as there were few existing nonplastic alternatives that met boba specs.) They also had an articulated paper straw that can bend 180 degrees. They view this one as a natural for attaching to the backs of juice boxes. All these were developed within the past 12 months, in a rush to identify customer needs.

Ohlendorf couldn’t help but chuckle when he saw news reports about the Trump campaign’s plastic straw gambit. First, there was the absurd price: $15 for a 10-pack, or $1.50 a straw. OK will sell you straws for under a penny per if you buy in bulk. But even more comical to Ohlendorf was the fact that OK has provided paper straws to the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas. “His campaign says paper straws don’t work, but his hotel is buying them,” Ohlendorf said. He added that the Trump hotel is late on its payment.

While OK Straw will likely take a hit from Trump’s trade war—Ohlendorf thinks the tariffs to import their straws from China could increase to 30 percent in October—up the coast in Los Angeles, a couple of other nimble straw founders are avoiding import tariffs altogether by manufacturing in the United States. Morgan Kelle, 27, and Lyne Kelle, 25, are a brother-sister team that also took a look at the 2018 straw bans and determined there was money to be made. They launched their company, US Paper Straw, after finding factory space in a quiet neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley.

On a recent sunny morning, the Kelles walked me around their gleaming manufacturing floor, where there were separate machines to make paper straws and to print color images on them. Workers guided piles of finished straws into cardboard boxes for shipping—10,000 straws in each case. “We believe in U.S. manufacturing,” said Morgan. “People have a bad idea of the quality of paper straws because of products from China, where they’re using very bad materials.”

The Kelle siblings, who grew up in France before moving to Canada and then the U.S., got their professional starts working for their family’s real estate development business. When I visited them, their beaming mother sat in on our interview—to her children’s mild embarrassment. Watching these extremely fresh-faced Gen Yers explain to me that they decided to start a straw company a year ago, are now making 25 million straws a week, and will soon be moving into a larger space to expand operations, I confess I began to wonder … should I be manufacturing paper straws too?

It’s tough to get reliable figures on the size of the U.S. straw market, as many of the companies involved are privately held. One widely propagated stat—attesting that Americans use 500 million straws each day—turned out to have been an educated guess from a 9-year-old. When I asked the market research firm the Freedonia Group for its best estimate, its “polymers group leader” told me that Americans used approximately 120 billion straws in 2018, or about 329 million straws per day. (That’s almost exactly a straw per day for every person in the country.) The overall straw market is very likely shrinking, as more bars and restaurants provide straws only upon request. But paper straws—which likely make up less than 10 percent of all straw sales right now, according to paper straw executives—will surely continue to consume a bigger and bigger slice of that diminishing pie.

The paper straw–makers I spoke to were selling basic models at anywhere from less than 1 cent up to 1½ cents per straw. If we settle on a penny-per-straw average to make it easy, and speculate that Americans might soon be using 50 million paper straws a day, by my math that’s $183 million in annual revenue sitting there to fight over. These favorable market conditions rely, of course, on the notion that legislative killshots will continue to target plastic. Which, for now, seems like a good bet.

Rafael Espinal first heard of Seattle’s straw ban “literally when I read it in the New York Times,” he said as he sipped a cold brew at a Brooklyn restaurant, stirring his ice with a straw made of hay. He was wearing jeans rolled up past his ankles and sneakers with no visible socks beneath. “That’s when I got the idea,” he said.

Espinal is a 35-year-old New York City Council member, representing parts of Brooklyn that include Bushwick and Cypress Hills. He’s already passed a bill requiring “green roofs”—vegetation, solar panels, wind turbines—on every new or substantially renovated roof in the city. Now he’s going after plastic straws. Last year, Espinal introduced a bill that would ban them from all city establishments. Actor Adrian Grenier (best known as the handsome guy from Entourage, now refashioning himself as an anti-plastic activist) testified in support of it.

Espinal thinks the bill will pass by the end of this year. I asked him if there are enough paper straws to meet the gargantuan demand that will be birthed when America’s largest city ditches all its plastic straws at once. “It was actually an issue last year,” he said, “when restaurants were moving voluntarily to paper straws. Business owners told me that paper straws were back-ordered for months. But I haven’t heard any concerns about that lately. And you have other alternatives now, like these.” He held up the hay straw from his drink. It snapped with a brittle crack as he spun it around to show me. “I think I just broke it,” he said. “But they work really well. They don’t impart any taste.”

The opposition to straw bans like Espinal’s tends to fall into a few main categories. The first, and most unassailable, objection comes from disability advocates. There are lots of disabled people who need straws to drink, and they find that plastic straws work best for their purposes. Several people with disabilities testified at the hearing for Espinal’s straw bill, and Espinal says he’s working up an amendment to make sure their needs are recognized.

Restaurant owners are another group that doesn’t universally love plastic straw bans, for a simple reason: They can buy plastic straws cheaper than paper straws. That price difference is decreasing, though, as more paper straw manufacturers enter the market.

Some on the left argue that plastic straw bans are an insufficient distraction. That a single-use product made of paper is bad, too, and that the proper solution is to reduce general consumption. Which, fair enough. The counterarguments here: 1) People aren’t going to stop using single-use stuff anytime soon, so we might as well make the single-use stuff they use less harmful. 2) Straw bans are a good early step and a useful test case, preparing us for more meaningful reforms to come.

Perhaps the most widespread pushback on plastic straw bans comes from those who just prefer plastic straws and think other kinds of straws, for lack of a better verb, suck. These critiques come from both sides of the aisle. Asked about straws at a recent CNN town hall, Kamala Harris said she supports plastic straw bans, but noted, “I’m gonna be honest, it’s really difficult to drink out of a paper straw. Like if you don’t gulp it down immediately, it starts to bend. So we gotta perfect that one a little bit more. … Innovation is a process.”

I’ve encountered this sentiment all over the place. And indeed, there’s no doubt that the old Chinese paper straws didn’t work right. They were loosely wound and could easily unwrap into useless cardboard spirals. They would occasionally, I’ve been told, foam when they contacted liquid. This created a perception about paper straws that, as American paper straw manufacturers will concede, has been hard to shake.

Other straw alternatives have problems too. Hay straws snap. Reusable metal straws can literally impale and kill you. There are straws made from cornstarch that claim to be compostable, but unless they’re handled by a specialized facility, they act like regular plastic. I once tried a straw made from avocado seeds that started to come apart in my hand before it even got wet.

But when it comes to the newest generation of paper straws, concerns about quality are outdated. In the course of reporting this story, I tried the best new paper straws on offer and discovered they are hefty, strong, and durable—meaning the straw stays intact for the 45 minutes it takes a normal person to nurse a brunchtime iced coffee. The new straws have decent “lip feel,” as they say in the business, so your tongue won’t taste the paper and the straw won’t stick to your mouth. Paper straws have gotten markedly better as the market for them has grown and as eager new manufacturers compete with each other to make a superior product. I have no doubt paper straws will keep improving in the years ahead.

One of the complaints I heard about paper straw quality came from Rafael Espinal’s New York City Council colleague, Joseph Borelli. Borelli, 37, is a Republican who represents Staten Island’s South Shore. He says Espinal is “very well-intentioned,” but he told me that if the straw bill comes to the floor, Borelli expects he’ll vote against it. “Have you ever used one of these paper straws?” he asked. “They come apart. It’s an inferior product. They don’t get the job done.”

I get the sense, though, that Borelli’s objection isn’t just about lip feel. It’s more that he resents taking orders from what he calls “the hyper-environmentalist Left.” Borelli makes frequent appearances on Fox News, the network where host Laura Ingraham recently pretended, in a bizarre bit of performance art, to suck a red-blooded American steak through a God-fearing plastic straw. On the right, plastic straw pride is partly a knee-jerk response to being told what to do by elitist technocrats (akin to the response when former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed limits on the portion size of sugary drinks) and partly a terrific opportunity to own the libs (akin to rolling coal). It’s not hard to imagine outsize novelty plastic straws all over the GOP convention floor come summer 2020.

“I do think we have bigger problems than plastic straws,” said Trump in July. “So you have a little straw, but what about the plates, the wrappers, and everything else that are much bigger and they’re made of the same material?”

I’m loath to admit it, but the president raises a fair point. We do have bigger problems than plastic straws.

A plastic straw, being smaller, indeed uses less plastic than a plastic plate or a plastic cup. It’s also true that plastic straws are responsible for only a teensy fraction of our marine debris problem. (The major culprit there is discarded fishing gear.) But the straw also happens to be a particularly pernicious piece of garbage. According to that polymer expert I talked to, it’s more difficult to recycle straws than it is to recycle plates and cups. That’s because straws are small and light and fly around easily, so they often escape before they reach the recycling machine. Even when they do get there, the machines have trouble dealing with them. Plates and cups are more likely to get processed.

In the grand scheme of things, though, these distinctions do become a bit silly. Only 9 percent of all plastic ever gets recycled, according to a peer-reviewed study in the journal Science Advances. There’s an overwhelming chance that a plastic item will end up in a landfill or a waterway, whether it’s a straw, a cup, a plate, a spork, or something else. This is partly because our municipal waste management services aren’t up to the gargantuan task of dealing with America’s garbage (a problem that’s only going to get worse as China refuses to take our trash off our hands) and partly because consumers (when we aren’t littering) don’t separate our recyclables with adequate care. Either way, the upshot is that unfathomable amounts of plastic get out into the wild every day and then sit there for centuries—breaking into ever-smaller pieces of microplastic and eventually turning up in our food, our bodies, and anywhere else you can imagine. Which means that most things that we make out of plastic right now ought to, if we can’t stop making them entirely, be made of something else. Something that doesn’t live forever.

Troy Swope is CEO of a company called Footprint that hopes to create workable alternatives for every plastic item under the sun. I got a tour of Footprint’s headquarters in Arizona. It’s an enormous building the size of a few city blocks, and it features an on-site metrology lab, a prototyping station, and a toolmaking shop, in addition to its manufacturing floors and warehouse areas. (The Kelle siblings’ entire US Paper Straw operation would fit in the space where Footprint keeps its foosball table and employee cafe.)

Swope got his start as an engineer at Intel, working on the plastic packaging that surrounds expensive microprocessor parts. “At Intel, we were using the most expensive plastic in the world,” said Swope. “It was designed not to outgas”—to leach chemicals—“but it still did. And then one day, I was looking at the plastic wrap around the organic vegetables my wife bought at the grocery store. And I thought, That’s some of the cheapest plastic in the world, and we’re putting it all over our food.”

Footprint makes paper straws that Swope is proud of (he boasts about their “hoop strength” and “absorption”), and the company now supplies all the paper straws at Whole Foods and says it’s in the running to eventually supply Starbucks too. But Footprint doesn’t stop at straws. It’s working on other nonplastic food packaging solutions: yogurt cups, microwaveable meal bowls, disposable utensils, those little flat trays that hold supermarket meat, even six-pack rings (the ones we used to snip so they wouldn’t choke the seals).

Footprint makes all these out of a material called molded fiber, which is derived from recycled paper and cardboard. Swope says it’s strong, won’t leak oils, and stands up to oven temperatures, but still degrades harmlessly after it’s thrown away. (Footprint’s molded fiber does not contain the PFAS that were in the fiber bowls that recently earned Chipotle and Sweetgreen the ire of some food safety activists. That story does highlight the danger that, in a rush to swap out a bad thing, we might introduce some problems with a new thing.)

“Grocery stores are where the massive volume in single-use plastics is,” said Swope. “So that’s where we need to be.” But he considers this merely a starting point. In time, he thinks Footprint could make nonplastic versions of things like disposable razors or credit cards.

Recently, Footprint brought aboard turtle filmmaker Christine Figgener as a sort of ambassador and has begun sponsoring her research. It’s nice of them to fund studies of turtle behavior. But it’s also a canny marketing move—and a pretty good snapshot of where we are in the anti-plastics movement. Swope’s mission to exterminate plastic is a noble goal, but it is also, not incidentally, very much in his business interest. He told me an initial public offering might be in Footprint’s future “if the market is right.”

In the meantime, you can expect more heart-tugging images of plastic-beset animals and of beaches smothered in plastic trash. The movement against plastic will accelerate. The politics will polarize further. And along the way, some people will make a lot of money. Which isn’t necessarily bad. Republicans might shout about paper straw socialism, but in fact what we’re seeing in this case study is well-regulated capitalism hard at work.

All Rights Reserved for Seth Stevenson

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