Like so many inventions, the lowly plastic drinking straw didn’t mean to cause trouble. From the mid-20th century until recently, it was the gold standard in food service: it was durable, cheap, and didn’t muddy people’s root beer floats like its paper predecessor.
Today, the plastic straw is the poster child of single-use plastic and its ill effects on the world’s oceans. A slew of cities and states across the U.S. including New York City, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., have either passed or proposed legislation to ban plastic straws, despite warnings from advocacy groups who argue their actions neglect the needs of people with disabilities. Major corporations such as Starbucks, Hyatt and Disney will phase them out over the next few years, and more are expected to follow.
While some innovators are creating disposable alternatives for businesses, others are targeting the consumer market with reusable drinking straws designed to be toted around. Their thinking: If canvas totes and stainless steel water bottles can become ubiquitous, why can’t reusable straws?
It’s a question that some consumers are beginning to answer for themselves. Sara Olson, a 26-year-old critical care nurse living in the Los Angeles area, purchased her first set of reusable straws in August after finding that several local restaurants had ditched straws entirely. While she supported the environmental reasoning, she couldn’t shake her preference for sips, not gulps.
“I just love a straw; I don’t know how to explain it,” she says. “As a nurse, I have a lot of patients that I’m passing medications to and they love straws as well.”
So Olson searched Amazon for reusable straws and stumbled upon Softy Straws, a brand of brightly-colored silicone straws sold in packs of four or five for around $12 to $15. She carries them around in her purse in the pouch they arrived in, and cleans them with a specially-designed straw brush after she uses them.
She says switching to a reusable straw has been seamless. “I use it all the time,” she says. “Every time we go out for drinks, I use it. If I’m getting coffee from Starbucks and I need to stir in my cinnamon, I’ll use that as my stirrer. I tell my patients about them as well.”
Softy Straws, a line of silicone-based straws, comes with a straw cleaner. Photo courtesy of Softy Straws.
She’s hardly alone. The reusable straw trend has spread on Instagram, with influencers using punchy hashtags such as #stopsucking and #giveasip to promote photos of themselves slurping from straws made out of wood, metal, glass, and silicone. Many of these products even come with their own cleaning brushes and carrying cases, and Etsy now boasts hundreds of custom-made brushes and straw pouches as well.
“People not only want to live a more eco-friendly life, they want to be seen as being eco-friendly,” says Jake Seltz, founder of Softy Straws. “When they share pictures on their social media or are seen in public, a reusable straw is a signal of consciousness.”
While the hype is rising, experts say it will take time before carrying a reusable straw becomes mainstream. “It’s definitely a future thing, but it’s not going to happen overnight,” says Laura Ries, president of advertising consultancy Ries & Ries. “People are in a rage now about plastic straws, but changing behavior usually takes time. Getting into the mind takes time. Spreading by word of mouth takes time.”
One of the challenges standing in the way -- convenience. For many people, it’s normal to grab a straw while out at a fast-food restaurant, and having to think through that choice requires some amount of conditioning. Another challenge is getting the design right; too often, companies that are looking to disrupt a category of goods make their solution look exactly like the existing product, which defeats the purpose, experts say.
“You want to make these things stand out so you can see them down the road and think, ‘What is she drinking?!” says Ries. “If they have to cost more, fine -- people are willing to invest when they can make a statement out of it.”
In 2016, Buluh Straws sold 150 packs of their reusable, kid-friendly straws; in 2018, the company sold 4,350. Photo courtesy of Buluh Straws.
The recent uptick in awareness has been great news for Softy Straws, which sells tens of thousands of silicone straw multi-packs each year and has seen sales double year over year, according to its founder. “We have been pleasantly surprised by the public response to eliminating single-use plastics, which has clearly catapulted our popularity and sales,” says Seltz. “But we felt like we had a good pulse on how the public would adopt more reusables -- we launched around the time plastic bags were being banned.”
From a design perspective, silicone is one of the more popular materials for straws: it’s flexible, dishwasher safe, kid-friendly (“no chipped teeth or throat pokes,” says Seltz), heat tolerant, and doesn’t leach hazardous chemicals. When properly cared for, each straw lasts years.
But bamboo straws have also become a popular alternative. Anahi Abe-Brower, a Mexico-born graphic designer, first encountered bamboo straws three years ago while at a restaurant in Bali with her husband and children. Not only were the straws aesthetically beautiful, they were kid-friendly, eco-friendly, and naturally antibacterial. “I fell in love,” she says.
Bamboo straws with a custom case. Photo courtesy of Buluh Straws.
She and her husband Darren spent the next year getting to know the growers and experimenting with the design and packaging before officially launching Buluh Straws in 2016. They run the business from their San Diego home, selling packs of eight organic bamboo straws for around $15 on Amazon, as well as it juice shops and health food stores in the U.S. and abroad. Each set comes with a cleaning brush and carrying pouch.
It’s still a side business, but sales have taken off. In 2016, Buluh Straws sold 150 packs of straws; in 2018, the company sold 4,350.
Abe-Brower is encouraged about where the business is headed, and is looking to expand into toothbrushes and sustainable versions of plastic wrap. “The heart of our company is to help people change habits,” she says. “We need to change the ‘throwaway mentality’ or nothing will change.”