As cities across the U.S. move to ban plastic straws, companies that make environmentally friendly alternatives suddenly have a big opportunity in front of them.

Starting July 1, Seattle will prevent restaurants from offering plastic straws or utensils to customers under penalty of a $250 fine. New York City proposed legislation to ban plastic straws by 2020, and Malibu, Calif., Miami Beach, Fla., and Fort Meyers, Fla. have similar efforts in the works.

One company hoping to benefit from this trend is Simply Straws--a 12-person Costa Mesa, Calif.-based company that has been on a mission to help eliminate single-use plastic straws since it became a certified B Corporation in 2013. But it won't be easy: Simply Straws wants consumers to swap the ubiquitous disposable straw for a far more expensive, reusable glass one.

A long journey.

In 2011, Chanelle Sladics, an avid environmentalist, was competing professionally on the global snowboard tour when her mother, Cyndi, came to her with the idea for Simply Straws. Cyndi, a dental hygienist for 31 years, often suggested straws to her patients with tooth sensitivity and erosion, but was reluctant to do so knowing the harmful environmental impacts of plastic. So she did some research and came up with the idea for a reusable glass straw. Chanelle was immediately on board. 

Chanelle's father, who had had a long career in construction, worked on manufacturing the straws, while Cyndi and Chanelle took on the business side. The family soon started producing straws out of the garage of their Newport Beach, Calif., home.

In November 2011, the Sladics took their straws to Green Festival, an annual convention in Los Angeles, and found they were a major hit.

"We were like the flippin' Apple store," Chanelle says. "We had a line of 15 people at our booth the whole weekend, and we made like $7,000." One of those people happened to be a regional buyer at Whole Foods, who helped the Sladics land their first account with the retailer. "We didn't have packaging or anything at that point. We were like, 'Whatever you need, we will make it happen.'"

They continued to sell at festivals and launched an online store soon after, but experienced setbacks that stunted growth. One year Simply Straws' Wordpress site was hacked twice before Christmas. It was down for nearly two weeks and the company lost $15,000 in sales. 

Then Cyndi fell ill for nearly two and half years due to a collapsed disc in her neck and could barely walk. After surgical complications, her condition became life-threatening. Simply Straws continued to fulfill orders but the company wasn't trying to grow. "There was no one manning the ship. It was a very stagnant time," Chanelle says. "I was traveling on tour, the website was there, the product was there, but [sales plateaued at] $130,000 a year."

In the summer of 2017, the Sladics sold 5 percent of their company to a friend and business investor to hire ChickLabs, an Irvine, Calif.-based startup incubator that focuses on female entrepreneurs, to help it grow. In 2015 they moved Simply Straws to a loft space in Costa Mesa, and have hired nine people since January. According to Chanelle the company is on track to sell more than 50,000 glass straws this year--30,000 more than in 2017--on its website and Amazon, as well as in smoothie shops and nearly 60 Whole Foods stores in the Southern Pacific region. (Simply Straws declined to give current revenue figures.)

"It's incredible what that family has gone through to get to this point. Chanelle would go around to festivals and snowboard tournaments and X-Games events to get those straws everywhere," says Andy Fyfe, a senior manager at B Corp. Chanelle was one of B Corp's first athlete ambassadors when the program was launched a few years ago. "They've been waiting for this conversation to be happening for a while. It's great that people are picking up a lot of interest in what they've been fighting for."

Competition in the green straw market.

Simply Straws are made from borosilicate, a thick glass with a low melting point, making it durable in both hot and cold temperatures. Each one is handmade using a process that involves burning, shaping, and cutting the glass. As a result, the company has capacity limitations and can currently manufacture only 1,000 straws a day.

Simply Straws' glass product faces competition from alternatives made with a variety of different materials, including stainless steel, bamboo, paper, and even seaweed. The most popular type of alternative straw, particularly for restaurants, is paper.

After years of resisting using any other materials, the Sladics have finally decided to explore other materials beyond glass. "We've had people asking us for paper and steel for years, and we're like 'no, no, no,'" Chanelle says. "But now that the demand is getting out of control, we're saying OK, we will sell you these other products, but we will continue to manufacture glass because it's our premier product." 

Simply Straws isn't the only green straw maker seeing an increase in business. Aardvark Straws, a leading paper straw manufacturer, is facing growing pains due to high demand. It can take customers up to four weeks to receive a case of their straws and up to 12 weeks for 12 or more cases, according to Dave Hooe, president and CEO of Precision Products Group, Aardvark's holding company. Aardvark is hiring 50 new employees this year, Hooe says.

Chanelle admits glass isn't likely to be the material of choice for some customers, despite its low impact. "We know restaurants are going to convert to [paper straws]," she says. "But they do the most damage."

Paper straws, though more expensive than plastic, are still significantly cheaper than glass. Simply Straws' best-selling glass straw costs $9.50, and it wholesales for around $2 to $3, depending on quantity. A recent Bloomberg article estimated plastic straws cost about half a penny, and paper straws cost around 4 cents.

Still, Simply Straws is betting its pitch is a compelling one for consumers: You'll only ever have to buy one straw. The company's lifetime warranty ensures that if you break yours, you can get a free replacement--just make sure you snap a picture of it first.

Published on: Jul 5, 2018