How a Sea Turtle Led an Arizona Company to Make Paper Straws

GILBERT, Ariz. – The push to ban single-use plastics is paying off for a Gilbert company.

When two Intel engineers founded Footprint five years ago, they focused on designing and making paper bowls, trays, cups and packaging. And then a YouTube video caught fire.

Recorded in 2015 by Christine Figgener, a marine conservation biologist, it shows her colleague pulling a plastic straw out of a sea turtle’s nose. (Video contains graphic content and strong language.)

“Unfortunately, I have to say, this is not a super uncommon sight,” Figgener said.

As her video racked up views, Jeff Bassett, senior vice president of marketing at Footprint, said companies asked them to come up with an alternative. So, they started making paper straws last fall and just announced a deal with Wegmans, an upscale grocery chain on the east coast. Bassett said they’ll be used in store delis and sold on shelves at 99 locations.

“Our ultimate goal is to be able to produce 27 million paper straws a day,” Bassett said.

He said Footprint has four production facilities, more than 800 employees and one ocean ambassador — Christine Figgener from the YouTube video. She said Footprint convinced her they had a good product.

Gilbert-based Footprint began making paper straws in 2018. (Photo courtesy Footprint)

“It started to become this thing that a lot of companies claimed to be biodegradable or all this kind of greenwashing vocabulary and it’s not true,” she said. “Here [at Footprint], it is the case, it’s not even a plastic, it’s fiber-based. It’s truly degradable. So, you know, you could throw it on your own compost, you could actually leave it in the marine environment. And, it’s third-party certified, so that’s kind of what I was looking for.”

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Last year, Nature, the International Journal of Science, published a study of ocean debris between California and Hawaii that found 90 percent made up of large pieces of plastics. Figgener said people should remember every river leads to the ocean.

“So that means you might have disposed of your plastic, you know, responsibly, it went onto the landfill,” she said. “But then, the next storm, the next hurricane, the next flood might have just transported it into the river and from there it went into the ocean.”

Next year, Starbucks says it will eliminate plastic straws at its stores worldwide. The change has been challenging for McDonalds. Some customers in the UK and Ireland have called on the fast food giant to stop its roll out of paper straws claiming they “dissolve” in drinks.

Footprint says its straws are engineered to last over days of use and still break down completely within 90 days.

“We actually delivered all the paper straws for the Scottsdale Culinary Festival that was about a month or a month and a half ago,” Bassett said. ”And the straws were very well received at that event. We actually had people there taking surveys on them.”

How are SoCal Boba Shops Handling the Strawpocalypse?

LOS ANGELES – There wasn’t much fuss when California’s plastic straw ban kicked in on New Year’s Day, probably because the state law only impacts full-service restaurants. Now, the city of Los Angeles is considering a broader disposable straw ban, one that would impact cafes, fast food franchises and other casual joints. Although the proposed regulation, which would go into effect in 2021, means upheaval for the hospitality industry, local boba shops aren’t breaking a sweat.

In the San Gabriel Valley, SoCal’s boba epicenter, they’re not only prepared for the Strawpocalypse, they’re ahead of local officials.

At Bopomofo Cafe, recently opened in San Gabriel, co-owner Eric Wang says they are currently using paper straws but will move to Sabert’s compostable straws in the future.

Elton Keung, owner of experimental San Gabriel boba shop Labobatory, which serves trend-bucking drinks like Chinese cough syrup boba green tea and Speculoos cookie butter boba milk tea, is ahead of the straw ban — although he doesn’t have to follow it.

Elton Keung (right), owner of experimental San Gabriel boba shop Labobatory, holds one of the shop’s custom reusable straws. (Photo by Dakota Kim / LAist)

In November, Keung commissioned Simply Straws, an Orange County-based boracylicate (Pyrex) glass straw company to manufacture glass boba straws, branded with Labobatory’s name. Simply Straws says it has seen glass boba straw sales quadruple in the past year.

Keung says the first run of 200 Labobatory-branded 8-inch glass straws, which were priced at $6 dollars and included a free drink, sold out within a week of their November arrival. The challenge, aside from keeping them in stock, is that the straws lack an angled tip. A barista must pierce a hole in the cup prior to serving it. Nonetheless, Keung has commissioned the production of a longer, 10-inch batch.

“We use boba tops that don’t require straws too,” Keung says. “Whatever the straw ban, we can adapt.”

Some employees are still unaware that the statewide ban began January 1.

“We’re not sure what we’re going to do yet,” an employee at Bubble Republic in San Gabriel said at the shop on January 10. “When does it go into effect?”

Within Los Angeles city limits, several shops are selling metal boba straws.

A boba tea from Labobaory, with one of the shop’s custom reusable straws. (Photo by Dakota Kim / LAist)

Boba Guys, which helped craft San Francisco’s strict no-PLA straw ban, debuted its new stainless steel, BPA-free metal straw at its two locations — Culver City and Echo Park — on February 1, although it is already available online. Customers can now purchase the metal straw, with accompanying brush, for $5 and reuse it at the shop, where it will be cleaned by the store. Engraved with “Boba Guys,” the item boasts a rare feature for a reusable boba straw: it has a pointy tip to pierce drinks. Co-owner Andrew Chau says the company requested this feature from their straw producer.

Some shops are finding that the biodegradable straws they want are hard to come by. Small-batch, slow-cooked tapioca shop Percolate, with locations in Hollywood, Los Feliz and West L.A., is waiting for backordered paper boba straws from Aardvark, which jumped in popularity after California’s straw ban went into effect.

In the meantime, Percolate is selling reusable metal boba straws that earn customers free add-ons each time they’re used. Percolate is also looking at the larger environmental picture by using recycled plastic cups and loose leaf teas that require less packaging.

Although Boba Guys is debuting single-use, fully-biodegradable bamboo straws in its shops, Chau doesn’t think it’ll be a problem to get boba fans to carry reusable metal straws.

“In Asia, people have a pack that looks like a holster that carries their straws, and a few people who come to our shops already bring their own straws,” Chau says. “If you can bring your own cups, you can bring your own straws.”

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When it comes to straws, Chau is a radical. While PLA straws, which are generally made from corn starch, cassava or sugarcane, are a step up from plastic straws, he thinks they’re not good enough. They require long composting times of three to six months and these microplastics still enter the ecosystems of vulnerable animals. Chau wants L.A.’s City Council to follow San Francisco’s lead and pass a ban that would include PLA straws, requiring restaurants to upgrade to disposable bamboo or reusable glass and metal straws.

“The only negative in the short term of reusable straws is getting used to the feel and taste,” Chau says. “So people need to think about the big picture. Think of the plastic bag ban.”

Earlier in 2018, boba shop owners including Labobatory’s Keung, upon hearing about the plastic straw ban, worried that environmentally sustainable straws would be financially unsustainable.

Taiwanese immigrants were among the first boba shop owners in Southern California, and their children continue to own and manage many of these businesses. Lyn Chen, who owns Boba Shop in Santa Monica, worried last year that, at a usage rate of 2,000 straws per month, the 100% cost increase of compostable straws would hurt her bottom line. But shops across the city seem to have adapted and thanks to the popularity of boba, companies like Simply Straws, Aardvark and Lollicup innovated quickly.

“Boba will always be popular,” Keung says. “We are ready to weather any storm that California brings.”

Some shop owners want L.A.’s City Council to follow San Francisco’s lead and pass a ban that would include PLA straws, requiring restaurants to upgrade to disposable bamboo or reusable glass and metal straws. (Photo by lirialove/Flickr Creative Commons)