From the #StopSucking campaign to high-profile straw bans, everyone is talking about straws right now. Last week, Starbucks announced it would nix plastic straws by the year 2020. McDonald’s locations in the U.K. have vowed to switch from plastic to paper straws by later this fall. And cities like Seattle and New York have either enacted or, in NYC’s case, are proposing to enact plastic straw bans.
The movement has left many companies scrambling to find a decent paper straw — an item that many consider to be an inferior way to suck. According to David Rhodes, global director at the Indiana-based paper straw manufacturer Aardvark, it’s an unfair rap. “China copied us poorly, and the straws that you would see in Walmart, Target, Hobby Lobby, Michael’s, Jo-Ann... I call ’em the ‘soccer mom straws’ that you buy for birthdays,” he says. “Those all come from China, and they’re a couple bucks. They’ll turn your child’s milk red, and so paper straws got a bad name. And a lot of people still [say]: ‘Paper straws are terrible. They fall apart. They get soggy. I’ve used four of them in my drink.’”
Aardvark was founded in 2007 (its parent company, Precision, creates packaging, tubing, and medical supplies), and over the years, it’s developed innovations like 10-inch “jumbo” straws, striped cocktail straws, and logo-printed straws, and has created straws for celebrities. Here, Rhodes talks with Eater about how the plastic straw bans have been affecting Aardvark’s business, which companies get the privilege of purchasing their products, and what separates them from the other straw alternatives.
You’ve been doing this for 10 years now. How many were you selling in the first year?
It’s gone from millions to hundreds of millions, [and] now we’re in the billions. It’s a big space. But we’re seeing rapid conversion. The real interesting thing is, and one of the reasons that an Aardvark straw works and a China[-made straw] doesn’t, is there’s still an art to it... to make it quality 100 percent of the time takes an operator months of training. It’s not like you push a button and you sit back and watch it. It doesn’t work that way. The China-made straws, the China-made machines with the China-made label... I’m sure there’ll be some incremental improvements in quality [there], but again, because of the materials and the process that Aardvark uses, that’s what the differential point is.
When you talk about adding capacity, yes, it’s equipment and machines, but it’s also operators and training the whole supply chain. We’re adding them faster than really anyone could ever imagine: It’s every week, scheduled out well into 2019. We’re just begging people to please be patient, plan way ahead: We’re having to phase people in. The big companies get this. A&W [was] the first, with 1,000 stores — those are gonna be all Aardvark straws — but those all don’t happen at one time.
When we sign an agreement to provide dedicated capital to that organization, it takes a few months to get the equipment in, get the operators trained. Then you start phasing in. You do the first 25 stores, then the next 100, then the next 200 and 500, and in about four or five months’ period, then they’ve got a full ramp-up. And that’s true whether it’s Disney or SeaWorld or McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks. Because McDonald’s alone could say, “We’re going now,” and they would try to buy up all the capacity, and nobody else would get a straw. That’s not fair. Obviously we’re going to take care of those customers that have been with us for many, many years: the Disneys, the SeaWorlds. We’re going to take care of environmentally sensitive areas, areas that have straw bans.
I’ve heard you have a closed-factory policy. Do you still have a patent on the straw that you’re producing?
We have a patent on the Eco-Flex, which is the bendy straw. Unfortunately, trying to just patent the regular paper drinking straw, our patent attorney said, “You really just can’t go there. Yes, what you’re doing is unique, but not patentable.”
We don’t use any coatings. It’s just a special paper. It’s [from] a tree that was planted in a sustainable, forestry-safe initiative, so it’s got the cleanest, greenest carbon footprint you could ever have on paper. People want to say, “It should be recyclable.” When you really study recycled paper, the total footprint... It’s pretty ugly, and so what we’re doing today is the cleanest. It’s a special grade of paper, a special adhesive. It’s obviously food grade. You and I literally could drink the glue. We could eat the paper. It’s that safe.
So the materials are one part of it. That secret sauce in the materials is why we have to have a closed factory.
How, exactly, are you making the straws? Are you winding paper around a tube?
The basic process of spiral-winding paper is fundamentally the same since 1888. It’s obviously a lot faster [now]. It’s a lot more consistent. And it’s the same basic technology whether it’s a toilet paper tube, whether it’s a Pringles potato chip can, or whether it’s a paper straw.
Why are you so, kind of, angry with the imports? Is it just because there’s this huge market now, and so they are eating up a lot of it?
No. And I know I shouldn’t come across that way. My apologies. It’s not just now. Even years ago, we attempted to help our competitors in China produce at least a quality, safe product, because one bad apple can ruin a lot. We’ve spent the last three or four years trying to educate the public that there is a difference, that the difference is clear... They wouldn’t even listen. As a matter of fact, they just said they don’t care. And I love competition, but it needs to be done on a fair and level playing field, and in the past, they haven’t been fair.
I don’t want to use words that are too strong, but they’ll give you a certificate or a piece of paper saying that when they import [their straws] into the U.S., they’ve been tested, and they’re food safe. And then we ... have their straws tested by a third party. They always fail.
You’ve said 2015 was a tipping point in terms of media attention. What was the week after that like for you?
We saw a very substantial increase in web traffic and phone calls and inquiries. I wish I could give out numbers, but again, being a family company, we’re guarded with some of that information: I can’t tell you how many employees, and how many machines. And so the hope is a couple of things. Hope No. 1 is that by going to straws on demand [we can] stop the growth of plastic straws. Now we want to lower the overall consumption of straws from 300 billion a year to maybe 250, who knows, maybe even to 200, just by going to straws on demand. [Ed. note: That 300 billion a year number is often contested.]
And then we’re hoping that consumers will take some responsibility in this — because they have to — in bringing a reusable straw, whether that’s glass or stainless steel or bamboo. That’s maybe going to get us down to 200 billion [used per year], roughly. I don’t know, maybe not quite that level, but then what we’re saying is, “If we’re going to use a drinking straw for 30 minutes, an hour, and then we throw it away, the only viable responsible product is the paper straw.”
Bioplastics, biodegradable plastics, just don’t work. Those hit the waterways. Those hit the oceans. They act just like plastic, and do we really want to turn a foodstuff into plastic when we have issues with hunger and starvation anyway?
So the sustainable, renewable aspects of an Aardvark paper straw really fit the bill. No one’s anti-straw. I don’t think any of the campaigns have been targeted at being anti-straw. This is all about plastic pollution. Straws are the gateway. The beautiful thing about why the straw could be targeted is it’s a relatively low-cost switch. Yes, paper straws are always gonna cost about a penny more than a plastic straw. Everybody gets that when you start looking at the consumption of a McDonald’s or a Starbucks: Pennies add up. But what’s the cost to marine life?
So that’s why the straw was the target. Trying to take on something bigger, like banning all plastic bags or all cups or all lids, to begin with, that would be more difficult. But clearly if we stop at straws, we’ve all failed, so that’s not what this is about.
It seems to me like, anecdotally, this conversation is being had 30 times as much even this month than it was last month. To what extent are you going to build more machines and train more people?
We’re air-freighting and expediting and paying premiums to our vendors … and training and hiring like you wouldn’t believe. That’s the main thing right now. We already shipped, over the years, to 30-something countries. But I’m hearing from countries I don’t think I’ve ever heard of now. It’s global. This is not an American phenomenon at all.
Do you have R&D going on on-site?
We do, and we have done both internal and third-party studies that look at all substrates, whether it’s alcohol or milk or all of those things. We find that the type of fluid doesn’t have an impact. A lot of the bartenders who have had issues [with straws that break down] ... again, we’re not perfect. We screw up every now and then. But most of the time, we find out that it was a China straw. It wasn’t an Aardvark straw. And then when we give them an Aardvark straw and say, “Hey, try this one,” it works.
Even the best Aardvark straw in the planet, if you’re a person who likes to take your straw and use it as a massive stirrer and chunk it around in your ice, it ain’t gonna work. That’s a 15-yard penalty. That’s illegal use of a paper straw. And it’s just not going to work. So it is different. There has to be education to the consumer. But it still works. If you put it in the beverage and treat it with a little love, it will last hours. The colder the beverage, the better.
Have you had to turn down any super-important people from getting a box of straws?
We’re not trying to turn anybody away, but we’re also realistic. For example, yesterday someone called and said, “The All Star game is Saturday. Major League Baseball in D.C. They don’t want to have any plastic straws there. Can you get them there?” We did.
There was a concert going on in California in a marine environment in three weeks, and they needed a lot of straws that would normally have a 12 to 14 week lead time. We got them there in four days. So we’re taking care of those areas and those big events ... to help promote awareness and to keep this thing going in the right fashion. But anytime you do that, obviously it pushes something else out, so there’s give and take.
What’s your least favorite other straw? How would you rank the other ones?
We’ve looked into natural bamboo as an offering. The issue is the sustainable supply chain to do it long term, because they eventually do break down. But keeping them clean and getting a good clean straw to begin with, it’s difficult. It would be the ideal straw because it’s naturally grown, but there are a lot of issues with it. ... Glass obviously breaks. And steel, you just have to be careful of where they come from, because there have been incidences with metal sharps that cut your lip or your tongue, and that’s not nice. The reusable straws, again, for the consumer that can wash their own, that’s a viable option. For restaurants, or any venues, to use a reusable straw, it’s been proven that it’s almost impossible for them, from a cleanliness standpoint, to clean reusable straws en masse.
I saw a quote in which you said last year — being, I guess, 2017 — you grew 5,000 percent from the year before. Is that accurate? Is it possible that you could go 50 times again?
Anything is possible, right? It’s such a large space. We have to make sure that we don’t compromise the quality and the integrity of the Aardvark straw just to get a cheap product out there. There are actually some bidding wars starting to go on for straws. People calling saying, “If I pay you more, will you guarantee you can get me to them faster?” And while that’s great, that’s not who we are, either.
We’re going to make sure that people, when they put a straw in their mouth, and they know it’s an Aardvark straw, that it’s safe, that it’s durable, something they can trust.
This previous month has been your biggest month ever, right?
Every week is our biggest week. Yes, every month is our biggest month, and it just continues to go and go and go.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. For more of Rhodes’s interview, check out the Eater Upsell:
Dan Geneen is a producer at Eater and co-host of the Eater Upsell