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

Christine Figgener is a marine conservation biologist focused on eliminating plastics in the ocean. (Photo courtesy Christine Figgener)

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.”