The rise and fall of the metal straw—and the reusables vying to take its place

With all the fundamental changes needed to make the food and beverage industry truly sustainable, why straws?
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· 5 min read

John Borg, founder and CEO of Eco Imprints and Steelys Drinkware, has been selling reusable straws for more than a decade, as one of the first wholesale suppliers. The early years were slow. In 2008, Borg had just a handful of restaurant clients and regulars. But one viral sea turtle would change everything.

“That video became a turning point that resonated with people,” he told Retail Brew. Straws would go on to become a rallying cry for sustainability and a symbol of corporate “activism.”

Remember when? The year is 2018. Your Facebook newsfeed serves up a devastating video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw puncturing its nose. The internet voices are telling you to cut your straws into small pieces before recycling them. (You’re confused by this roundabout solution, but sure.) Celebrities join the #StopSucking campaign against single-use straws. People start touting the benefits of metal sippers, cities pass plastic bans, and Starbucks rolls out new “sippy cup” tops.

But with all the fundamental changes needed to make the food and beverage industry truly sustainable, why straws?

“It was something that caught people's attention, and from a retailer or restaurant point of view, it was easy to make that change,” Kearney Consumer Institute Lead Katie Thomas told Retail Brew.

  • Giants like Disney, American Airlines, Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott International quickly promised to ban (or “limit”) plastic straws.
  • Meanwhile, a portion of Starbucks’s $1 billion Sustainability Bond went to replacing plastic straws with “greener” (but still plastic) cups.
  • Borg’s company sold more than a million steel straws by 2019.

“Straws are, in the grand scheme of plastic pollution, a drop in the bucket,” Borg admitted. “But it’s low-hanging fruit.” An estimated 8.8 million tons of plastic spill into the oceans every year. Straw bans have hardly made a dent.

Slipped up: Yet, just as fast as our paper straws turned soggy, the “movement” became a fad. By 2019, metal straws were deemed a “fatal” hazard (plus: hard to clean, inconvenient, and inconsequential). Thomas put it bluntly: “What you're seeing now is the death of metal straws.”

“The reason these things don't stick is precisely because...consumers don't want to have a less functional product,” she said. “There's a threshold.”

That’s one reusable lesson for the new crop of sustainable straw startups.

The last straw?

Competition is fierce in the reusable straw space. Some companies are betting on materials like bamboo, hay, and sugarcane to replace plastic suckers. SoFi Paper Products, on the other hand, wants to fix the flimsy paper straw.

Paper is behind the fastest-growing segment of the global reusable straw market, per DataM Intelligence. The paper straw market is predicted to hit $1.6+ billion by 2024, up from $585 million in 2019.

  • Meanwhile, the global plastic straw market, estimated at $11.3 billion in 2019, will fall to a market value of $3+ billion by 2027.

After six months of testing, SoFi landed on a biodegradable product in 2019 that doesn’t bend or melt in your beverage—paper’s main downfall.

  • Like much of the reusable straw biz, the majority of sales come from the coasts. Hawaii is one of SoFi’s biggest markets, along with California, Texas, Florida, and Maryland.
  • While the company is primarily B2B, it also sells its straws in Walmart.

Cofounder Brandon Leeds says SoFi’s biggest challengers are plant-based and compostable products. “While they say they're earth-friendly, they're basically has to go through so many processes for it to actually start to break down, which the consumer doesn't even know about.”

  • Biodegradable straws and bottles do break down quicker than fossil-fuel plastics, which can linger for hundreds of years, but experts say “bioplastics” can last in the ocean for several years.
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One and done: Kai Lin, founder of LK3 Sugarcane Straws, said the pandemic’s impact on supply chain, pricing, and restaurant closures hasn’t been kind to those in the “soft reusable” straw business. Also, single-use plastic made its return during the pandemic as people opted for never-touched disposables.

But as the bar and restaurant industry rebounds, revamped demand could reverse those setbacks.

Lin predicts an uptick in soft reusables, but doesn’t foresee metal straws, or “hard reusables,” making the cut. “If you already have a metal straw, you're not in the market to buy another one.”

  • Steelys, for its part, is moving product again, but Borg said steel straw sales are only 25% of what they were a few years ago.

Easy does it

As we trade metal for paper for sugarcane for hay for faulty “bioplastics”—are we doomed to repeat the cycle until climate change kills us all? (Sorry, too dark?)

Well, the ultimate fate of the sustainable straw isn’t up to the customer, or even the straw purveyors themselves. Katie Thomas thinks of the metal straw as “a reminder that consumers will always choose the path of least resistance.”

“We think a lot about how to change behavior rather than try to tap into existing behavior,” Thomas said. “It really comes down to closing some of those gaps and putting it less on the consumer to have to make the decision, when really it's supposed to be a corporate initiative.”

We’ll see if the humble cup, which Leeds pointed to as the next trend in sustainable drinkware, learns from the straw’s mistakes.

  • SoFi’s paper cup launches next month after almost two years of development.
  • Lin is also looking beyond straws: “We want to do takeout containers and cups to provide a true and whole eco solution.”
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