INDIANAPOLIS – First, it was plastic bags. Now, the battleground in the war on bad-for-the-environment single-use plastics has shifted to a new front: the straw.
As in, the straw that comes almost automatically with every drive-thru drink purchase. Or restaurant beverage order. Or ballpark soda.
Problem is, straws can have devastating and often deadly environmental consequences, especially when consumed by wildlife. The concern is such that some cities, states and even countries around the world have or are considering bans on plastic straws.
That is a potentially big problem for restaurants, coffee shops, zoos, theme parks and others. And, for many, their solution has been found in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Indiana's second-largest city is home to Aardvark Straws – the nation's only producer of paper straws.
Aardvark's straws use only FDA-compliant and food-grade materials and are marine degradable and compostable. They also are in high demand and short supply.
"The global demand for drinking straws is massive," said David Rhodes, the company's global business director, "and there aren't just paper straw machines lying around."
He's not wrong. In the U.S. alone, consumers use as many as 500 million straws each day. That is more than 1½ for every American on a daily basis. That also is enough plastic straws to fill more than 46,000 school buses in a year or to stretch around the globe more than two times.
While this small, slender tube is just one part of the more than 8 billion tons of plastic trash that flow into the world's oceans every year, it has found itself at the center of a growing tidal wave to leave plastics in the past for the sake of the planet.
Enter Aardvark's paper alternatives.
"It's a wonderful thing right now to see this movement," Rhodes told IndyStar. "But fortunately, or unfortunately, right now there is not another viable option other than Aardvark, so people are looking for us to carry the full weight of this."
Growth goes 'into orbit'
Aardvark came onto the scene in 2007 as the antiplastic movement began to emerge. A leading manufacturer of small cylindrical tubing, Indianapolis-based Precision Products Group Inc. was asked to make a more environmentally friendly straw.
Reaching into its archives, the company found the original 1888 patent for the first paper straw. Putting a modern spin on that original concept, Precision spun off its new paper product line into a subsidiary, Aardvark straws.
In the 10 years since reintroduction, the company has seen year-over-year growth, according to Rhodes. This last year's growth, however, is beyond anything the company could have expected: 5,000 percent.
"What we are seeing is unprecedented," he said. "We've had great growth year after year after year, but this year it has gone into orbit. It's that big, and it's growing every day."
What makes their straws so special is kept tightly under wraps – so tight, in fact, that the company has a total closed plant policy to protect the sensitive nature of its product.
Although Aardvark is the only manufacturer of paper straws in the U.S., it does have competition coming from China. The Fort Wayne company's materials are sourced from a sustainably managed forest that is in compliance with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and the Forest Stewardship Council. Its straws, made of natural cellulose paper, are also completely compostable and biodegradable.
But not while in your beverage.
Up until the 1960s, the paper straw was the only straw, made popular by soda fountains and pharmacies. Still, it did have its shortcomings, namely, that it would disintegrate in the drinks. So when the plastic straw was introduced, it usurped its degradable companion and by 1970, the last paper straw had been manufactured.
"We knew we couldn't bring back the straw from the '60s, so we completely redeveloped it so it is durable and lasts and doesn't get soggy," Rhodes said. "We use unique materials and, with the way we process it, that makes Aardvark a straw that you can trust."
Numerous businesses – including restaurants, hospitals and other service industries – across the country and around the world rely on Aardvark straws. The company ships hundreds of millions of straws to customers in all 50 states and 34 countries.
With the increased demand, the company encourages interested businesses to plan ahead and factor in lead times of as many as 10 to 12 weeks to get their shipment. The company is adding capacity, Rhodes said, to address the increased demand. Industry experts expect the high rate of growth to continue for at least another year or two.
"The beauty of paper straws is not saying to get rid of every straw you have, but to rethink the choices you are making," said the Indiana Recycling Coalition's executive director, Allyson Mitchell.
Clear and 'horrific' connection
At 500 million straws used in the U.S. daily, that equates to more than 180 billion straws a year – most of which can't be recycled. Some end up in the nation's waterways and oceans. No global measure of plastic straw consumption exists, but conservative estimates put it in the hundreds of billions on an annual basis.
They are among the top five plastic debris items in the ocean – along with plastic wrappers, bottles, bottle caps and bags – according to the B.A.N. 2.0 List report by the 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit working to fight the "global health crisis of plastic pollution."
In the last 25 years, more than 6.2 million straws and stirrers were picked up during annual beach clean-up events. And by 2050, the World Economic Forum estimates that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
These numbers may sound apocalyptic, but a gruesome 2015 video seemed to change the tide by drawing attention to the problem. The video showed a sea turtle off the coast of Costa Rica having a straw extracted from its nose.
"You can't watch that and not think to yourself that all the straws I've ever accepted are still somewhere on this planet; it makes that connection so clearly and horrifically," Mitchell said of the video, which has more than 28 million views on YouTube.
"So much of why we have so much waste in the world and all the plastic is the disconnect between this tiniest of decisions and what the impact is," she continued. "Well that's where the impact comes in."
Billy Hannan, general manager at Broad Ripple Brewpub in Indianapolis, had been considering a switch from plastic to paper straws since early last year and decided to take the plunge in February. He hasn't looked back and has only received positive comments and support: His Facebook post announcing the change received nearly 750 likes, 85 comments and 40 shares.
"We just did it because we felt it was the right thing to do," Hannan told IndyStar. "But we had no idea, really, just how popular of a move this would be."
The Brewpub has tried a few different paper straw products, but immediately placed an order with Aardvark after hearing about the Indiana company. The green and white straws now ornament the restaurant's cups, and Hannan said he plans to continue ordering from Aardvark for their quality and to support a local business.
Although the paper straws do cost more than their plastic counterparts — about a cent more per straw — Hannan said expense is not a consideration for him with the cost of what's at stake for the oceans and wildlife.
"Paper straws are the way it's going now, and this is what people will want and what people will expect," he said. "I think people will be shocked after a while if they go into a restaurant and see plastic straws."
Ban plastics or ban bans?
In a growing number of cities around the U.S. and countries around the world, people will not even be able to get plastic straws.
Seattle is the latest and first large city to implement a ban on plastic straws and utensils, which takes effect July 1. It follows Malibu, California, which implemented its plastic straw ban on June 1. And several other cities are setting their sights on such bans, including New York City; Delray Beach, Florida; and the entire state of California.
One city not on that list: Indianapolis.
City-County Council Vice President Zach Adamson said that he would love to see a ban on plastic straws and other single-use products, considering the number of viable options out there such as Aardvark's paper straws. That said, he is not hopeful.
"The state pre-empts us on issues like this," he told IndyStar. "I believe in all my heart that, as we've seen (Indianapolis) sliding down the population rank, this is related to (the city) essentially being kept in the dark ages by the legislature."
The pre-emption Adamson is referring to is what is known as the plastic bag ban. In 2016, Indiana lawmakers passed a law that made it illegal for local governments to ban or tax the use of plastic bags, as Bloomington had been considering.
The plastics industry has opposed bans at every turn, and manufacturers have persuaded lawmakers in other states, including Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona and Missouri, to also pass legislation outlawing bag bans.
"People move to cities that are progressive," Adamson added, "and they move out of cities that are regressive."
That law is in stark contrast to others around the country, such as Seattle, which banned plastic bags in 2008, or California, which became the first state to ban the bags the same year as Indiana's ban on a ban.
The law's author, state Rep. Ron Bacon, said he was not against the limitation of single-use plastics, but against the inconsistent and piecemeal implementation of such a law across the state.
"The bill doesn't say they can't do it, it says they just have to get the whole state to do it," the Evansville Republican told IndyStar. "I agree with the premise that we have too much plastic and there are other good options like paper straws. But if it's that bad and we should do it, then we should do it as a state."
"So if people have a big problem with it," Bacon continued, "then people need to bring it to their legislators to get the conversation started here in the state."
State Rep. Martin Carbaugh, R-Fort Wayne, who represents the district Aardvark straws is located in, voted in favor of Bacon's law. He declined an interview and did not comment if he would support a ban on plastic straws in Indiana.
State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, knows these issues are on the forefront of his constituents' minds. But absent action by the government, he said he is happy to see consumers and local business – such as Aardvark and the restaurants using their paper straws – stepping up.
"I think that it's really hard to believe that the kinds of things we use and throw away here in Indiana could end up swirling around in the ocean, but it does," Pierce said. "I think if consumers collectively say, 'We want the businesses we patronize to think about the environment,' then businesses will respond."
Bru Burger Bar's Mass Ave location has listened. Rolling out Aardvark's paper straws in March, they have even heard from some customers who said they were coming in precisely because the restaurant had paper straws. The Cunningham Restaurant Group is now working to bring paper straws to all its restaurants.
Some even bigger businesses, such as Starbucks and McDonald's, are also starting to move away from plastic straws and make the switch to paper, said Rhodes, adding that Aardvark is in talks with the restaurant giants.
"This is not just about straws, it's about throw-away plastic that is used for minutes and then here for years and years," said Aardvark's global business director. "Straws are the poster child, the gateway to getting people to think more about this, and the only viable, renewable, responsible option is a paper straw."
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at (317) 444-6129. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters, join The Scrub on Facebook.IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.