Craig Graffius started EcoGlass Straws 12 years ago with three decades of glass-making experience and his vision for an alternative to the ubiquitous plastic straw. What he didn’t have was anyone clamoring for his product.
Today, his tiny four-person shop in Hood River, Oregon, is gearing up to turn out 2,000 handcrafted glass straws an hour. That’s up from the current pace of 125 an hour, or 1,000 a day.
EcoGlass’s surging output underscores a wave of change sweeping through the supply chain as the straw emerges as a central symbol of the world’s plastic trash crisis. With consumers searching for greener options, companies from Starbucks Corp. to McDonald’s Corp. to MGM Resorts International are responding.
“Everybody’s got to find a replacement,” said Graffius, who said he has seen orders more than triple in the past year after a long struggle to convince buyers his wares were more than just a novelty. “We didn’t anticipate this happening. We were going to really hit the market.” But instead, “it’s hitting us.”
Plastic straws are just one example of how companies are being forced to adapt to changing public attitudes about the environment. For some, abandoning traditional plastic raises costs, threatens sales and forces uncomfortable conversations with customers. Others see an opportunity for new business with the rise in demand for alternatives.
The furor dates to a viral 2015 video of marine biologists pulling a straw from deep inside the nose of a sea turtle. Then in 2017 the “Strawless in Seattle” campaign motivated cities to take action. The public outcry escalated to the point McDonald’s, Starbucks and MGM have vowed to phase out their reliance on plastic straws globally. American Airlines Group Inc. said Tuesday it would replace plastic straws and stir sticks with more “eco-friendly” straw and bamboo options. Alaska Air Group Inc. said in May it would phase out single-use plastic straws.
While straws account for just .03 percent of the 8 million metric tons of plastic that enters the ocean each year, according to a 2015 study, the disturbing images refocused the world’s attention on the problem.
“The anti-single-use-plastic movement is much bigger than those who identify as environmentalists,” said Maisie Ganzler, brand chief for Bon Appetit Management Co., a food-service chain that on May 31 said it would stop using traditional plastic straws. “When people see the photographic evidence of the amount of plastic pollution in our oceans and in the bodies of birds, fish, turtles and whales, it’s stomach-turning no matter what your politics are.”
In recent months, countries in Europe have begun announcing bans or limits. As of July 1, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to outlaw plastic straws, following similar measures by smaller towns along the East and West Coasts. Even where laws haven’t changed, the public outcry is pressuring companies to respond or risk alienating customers. That pressure travels up and down the supply chain.
Best Diamond Plastics co-founder and President Mark Tolliver has grown his straw-making business to more than 70 employees from the five he started with in 2008, in large part thanks to his first major customer: McDonald’s. Now his 73,000 square-foot plant in Chicago churns out plastic implements for customers including five big fast-food companies.
Tolliver started talking with McDonald’s about more environmentally friendly options a few years ago as concerns about plastic trash gained traction. That sent him searching for a solution that wouldn’t turn his growing business upside down. Competing against a range of entirely different materials, such as glass, paper or metal, Best Diamond decided to stick with the material it knew best, but engineer it to quickly decompose.
Tolliver teamed up with Smart Plastic Technologies in Knoxville, Tennessee, where CEO Tim Murtaugh found success in recent years selling an additive that makes plastic grocery bags biodegradable, and has now adjusted the product to work for straws.
In the last six months, the drive for an alternative became more urgent as he heard from all five of his big fast-food customers. McDonald’s announced last month it would be replacing plastic straws with paper in the U.K. and Ireland by 2019, and would start testing substitutes in the U.S., as well.
Murtaugh says he’s seen a tenfold increase in inquiries for his additive so far this year, including from many larger companies. “We’ve drawn their attention, they’re impressed with our technology, and we are now in what I would call the final phase of conversation about it,” he said.
Many plastic substitutes come with their own set of environmental problems, said Murtaugh. Paper straws have more carbon emissions when the entire manufacturing process is considered, and plant-based bioplastics are tricky because they won’t break down if they’re not composted correctly, he said. Reuseable glass straws can be difficult to clean and are significantly more expensive up front.
Nonetheless, those products are also seeing demand surge in the wake of the plastic straw controversy.
The largest U.S. paper straw maker, Aardvark Straws, can’t keep up with the flood of new orders, leaving some customers to wait three months for their orders to be filled.
Eco-Products Inc., which supplies food-service giants such as US Foods Holdings Corp. and Sysco Corp., has seen demand for its compostable straws double in the last six months.
When he was first getting EcoGlass off the ground, Graffius spent years traveling to craft shows and conferences handing out free samples of his glass straws to drum up business. But people still viewed them as a gimmick. “I spent a lot of money and I pretty much got nowhere,” he recalled.
Graffius abandoned his marketing efforts and refocused on making his straws. He imports shatter-resistant glass from Germany and then hand-shapes and polishes it into smooth, dishwasher-safe drinking tubes “almost equal to the silverware that’s in your drawer.”
He sells his straws direct through his company website and in bulk to a distributor, Foods Alive Inc., based in Angola, Indiana. Foods Alive repackages and sells the straws to several hundred retail stores, juice bars and consumers. The distributor has seen sales jump by 30 percent from last year, and now markets the EcoGlass product to individuals, too, packaged with a carrying case and cleaning brush, said Matt Alvord, one of the company’s founders.
EcoGlass’s phone started ringing more often a couple years ago after the turtle video stirred more awareness about how plastic trash was harming the environment.
A local restaurant, Pelinti Pizza, is among the new customers stocking EcoGlass straws. Owner Gabriel Head says customers have been “overwhelmingly positive,” with many thanking him for providing an option other than plastic.
“People who care, get it,’ he said.
As demand took off over the past year, EcoGlass has been able to cut prices by almost half, with the wholesale price now ranging from $1 to $1.50 per straw, depending on style. Compare that to a box of 100 disposable plastic bendy straws that retails for $5.99 on Amazon.com, or about six cents apiece. Graffius is finishing work on a machine that will drastically speed up the cutting and polishing process. He expects an average 1,890 straws an hour to roll off the assembly line by next month, which will allow him to cut prices even more.
Meanwhile the glassmaker is hearing from new customers every day, ranging from hospitals to hotels, as the plastic backlash accelerates.
“It’s exciting,” Graffius said. His business started with a simple, environmentally friendly product that was ahead of its time, “and now everything’s catching up.”
Copyright © 2018, Chicago Tribune