From the time they were first invented in 1888 through the middle of the 20th century, all straws were paper. Older people might remember trying to drink milkshakes through straws that fell apart after a few sips. Plastic slowly began to supplant paper in the 1950s, though, and paper straws were swiftly swapped out for the more durable alternative. By the late 1960s, Aardvark, a family-owned straw company that traces its origins back to the original paper straw, had completely switched its product to plastic.
While sturdier, though, those straws–along with other plastic products–wreaked havoc on the environment. Today, the world produces around 300 million tons of plastic, which is made from crude-oil chemicals that seep into waterways. Around 4% of global oil that’s extracted becomes plastic, and another 4% is used to power the manufacturing process. And once plastic is made, only around 9% of it is ever recycled–much of it ends up in the oceans, where it’s damaging marine life.
As awareness has grown around the damaging effects of plastic on the world, environmental groups like the Ocean Conservancy and the Surfrider Foundation began to call for a transition away from all single-use plastic. In doing so, they landed on straws as a focal point. The small pieces of plastic are very difficult to recycle, and when swallowed by birds, turtles, and other sea creatures, they cause injury. David Rhodes, global business director for Aardvark, recalls being approached by environmental activists in the early 2000s. They had identified the company as one of the oldest straw manufacturers in the U.S., and asked if Aardvark would consider converting its product back to its original paper form.
In 2007, Aardvark reintroduced the paper straws–albeit in a more modern form. With a proprietary formula, Aardvark creates paper straws that are durable, safe for human use (Rhodes has said he’s willing to be filmed eating the paper, glue, and ink that go into the straws), and marine-degradable and compostable.
As the efforts of environmental activists reached the ears of businesses and political leaders, many also began looking for alternatives to plastic, and found them in Aardvark’s revamped paper straws. The steakhouse chain Ted’s Montana Grill was the first retailer to approach Aardvark with a request for a deal that would help them phase out plastic straws across all its locations.
After that, growth remained steady, Rhodes says. Sales of paper straws were doubling every year since 2007. “But fast-forward to 2016 and 2017, and something changed,” he says. “Now, we’re seeing a 50-x increase in demand.”
What’s driving it, Rhodes says, are the same forces that encouraged Aardvark to switch back to paper straws in 2007. They’ve just grown bigger. “The snowball has been building for a while,” he says. But newer activist groups like the Lonely Whale, founded by actor Adrian Grenier, and The Last Plastic Straw, started a louder call for retailers and municipalities to phase out plastic straws (these phase-outs, it should be noted, are much more complicated for disabled straw users). “All these groups that have been working on the plastic issue started to come together to call for an end to plastic straws,” Rhodes says.
The pinnacle, he adds, was the announcement last fall that Seattle would completely ban plastic straws in 2018, becoming the largest metro area in the U.S. to do so after an extensive lobbying campaign by the Lonely Whale. Seattle was followed by California cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Carmel, Berkeley, and Malibu, as well as Miami Beach in Florida and Monmouth Beach in New Jersey. New York City has legislation banning plastic straws pending. Outside the U.S., Scotland will ban plastic straws by 2019 and the whole U.K. is moving in this direction, Vancouver and Aruba have already done so, and Taiwan will ban single-use plastics, including straws, by 2030.
On top of that, private companies continue to drive the trend. Alaska Airlines has banned straws, the food service company Bon Appétit, which serves stadiums like AT&T Park, the Getty Museum, and numerous colleges and universities, is phasing out plastic straws from its 1,000 cafes. Starbucks is also phasing out straws. SeaWorld and aquariums, perhaps obviously, have also been leaders. Once Aardvark introduced custom printing in 2015, brands began using the straws to get additional branding exposure; Rhodes points to a frozen-drink straw emblazoned with the Bacardi logo as an example. They’ve also pioneered a way to make durable, bendy paper straws to make the products accessible to people with mobility needs.
For Aardvark, this boom in demand has been, of course, good for business. But it’s also put a strain on the company’s operations. Its Fort Wayne, Indiana factory was chugging along when growth was more modest, but its struggled to meet the demand spikes following bans like those in Seattle. “It can be frustrating,” Rhodes says. Large orders, at the current factory, can take up to 12 weeks to fulfill. “Our position right now, when we meet with localities and companies that want to switch to paper straws, is: ‘Don’t go too fast,'” he adds. Currently, Aardvark doesn’t have the capacity to immediately fulfill orders of the magnitude that would enable, say, New York City, to completely switch to paper straws.
But they’re setting themselves up to be able to do so. In August, Aardvark was formally acquired by the paper products company Hoffmaster. The acquisition presents a good business opportunity for both–with demand for paper straws booming, Andy Romjue, president of Hoffmaster, estimates that paper straws could quickly grow to 50% of the market share for straws, up from the less than 1% it’s previously commanded. To that end, Aardvark and Hoffmaster will be building out a new factory in Fort Wayne, slated to open in 2019, to manage growth. They’ll be hiring around 150 new employees, and while the companies won’t disclose how many people currently work at Aardvark’s factory, the new hires represent “a significant increase,” according to Romjue.
One of the main complaints about the focus on plastic straws is that, while numerous, they only account for a tiny fraction of overall plastic waste–just around .03%. But both environmental advocates and paper straw manufacturers like Aardvark are not discouraged by the statistically small impact of what they’re doing. For one thing, paper straws are a simple starting point, something that could wake people up to the problem of single-use plastic–and the potential of alternatives to it–without asking them to dramatically shift their lifestyles. And the fact that Aardvark is building out an entirely new factory for plastic alternatives should demonstrate that this type of change could soon come–probably faster than you might expect–to other plastic-dominated sectors.