My Love-Hate Relationship with the Paper Straw

Earlier this week, I was blessed to be sipping a piña colada with a view of the ocean. I was also thrilled that the drink came with a paper straw. I hate plastic straws. Like many, I cried seeing the video of the sea turtle with the straw being extracted from his nose. I am delighted every time one more restaurant group phases them out and they are removed from airlines and cafeterias.

About half-way through my piña colada, the straw split open along the twirled seam and drink spilled from the crack, unable to reach the top. Undeterred, I removed the broken straw, declaring, “who needs a straw anyway?” Then, with about a third of the colada left, I had to tilt the glass more and more. Suddenly the whole remaining colada hurtled down the glass and landed splat in my nose and face. Mr. Stevens, laughing uproariously, said, ”Bet you wish you had a plastic straw.” He got the evil glare. “It’s crappy straw manufacturers like this that are ruining the entire environmental movement” I fumed, while wiping piña colada off my face.

The history of the straw goes back five thousand years when Ancient Sumerians used metal tubes to suck up fermented beverages. The first patented straw was a paper one invented by Marvin Stone in 1888 after his ryegrass straw disintegrated in his mint julep. The first plastic straws were introduced in the 1960s. They took over the paper straw market: they were cheaper and they were more durable, especially in new to-go cup lids. They didn’t split, unravel or disintegrate. Unfortunately that improvement came at significant negative environmental impact. An estimated 8.3 billion straws pollute the world’s beaches.

I am not advocating a return to plastic straws. But I do get concerned when the offered substitute for an unsustainable product is a bad product. Cleaning products that don’t clean. Tissues that leave your nose raw and red when already miserable from a cold. Deodorant that has coworkers running for the hills by 2pm. While some people will accept the trade offs, and I am usually one of them, most won’t. Worse, they will try the product once, experience the suckiness, stop using it AND go tell 50 friends that environmental products suck. Not just that manufacturer. The entire category.

Jeffery Schwartz, former CEO of Timberland, once explained to a room of MBAs that in his view, sustainability needs to be the gift with purchase, meaning Timberland first and foremost needs to make great shoes. They also need to be made as sustainably as possible. I can think of other great examples of this mantra. Teslas, when powered by renewable energy, are one of the most sustainable cars. It’s also beautiful and the safest car on the market. Method uses green chemistry but offers vibrant color and sleek design and yes, effective cleaning. Bevi offers workplaces on-demand, flavored flat and sparkling water that eliminates cans and bottles. It also gives people the new ability to tailor how fizzy and how flavored you want your sparking water.

My call to purpose-driven leaders is twofold. If you make sustainable products, please make products that deliver the core value very well, first and foremost. I know cost is the biggest challenge, but research shows that people, especially young people, are increasingly willing to pay more for sustainability. People also pay more for good quality, good design and durability. Make sustainability the gift with purchase.

To everyone who is responsible for providing sustainable products to others—employees, students, customers, guests—please choose good ones. We need the market to reward those manufacturers that make very good sustainable products and quickly weed out those that don’t. That will, in turn, help get the quality manufacturers the volume they need to lower prices.

And for the rest of us, when you find great sustainable products, share widely and loudly. And please don’t let one bad experience swear you off the entire category. Keep trying and think creatively about alternatives. I, for one, am now in the market for a reusable straw that will fit in my phone case and be easy to clean. All recommendations welcome.

Quote of the Week:  Buy less, choose well, make it last.

Vivienne Westwood

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