Think plastic straws suck? Suck out of this one…
By Rekha Shanmugam.
According to math done by a nine-year-old in 2011, Americans use about 500 million plastic straws every day. Now, the straws may only account for a small portion of the total waste dumped into the oceans but campaigns to end its use have galvanized anti-plastic movements in huge ways worldwide.
But what if we made straws that do not have to be dumped post their use?
This is the idea that brought sustainability specialist Emma Cohen and cinematographer Miles Pepper together, resulting in a Kickstarter campaign that raised $200,000 in the first 48 hours. A reusable, foldable, sustainable metal straw called FinalStraw was born.
Environmental consciousness had always been a way of life for Cohen. Even as an undergrad at the University of California at Santa Barbara, she started a non-profit called ‘Save the Mermaids’ along with her friends, which aimed at educating children about the harmful effects of single-use plastics. In October 2017, Cohen met Pepper, a man who shared the same sentiments.
A while later, Pepper approached Cohen with an idea to do something that might help the planet in this regard - a reusable, collapsible straw, easy to use for people on the go. Meanwhile, all around the world, conversations about the lasting impacts of single-use plastics were gaining momentum, applying pressure on corporations and government bodies to take appropriate measures. The slender straw often served as the fulcrum of these talks, the face of the movements. The graphic image of scientists removing a straw embedded in a sea turtle’s nose, from a video that went viral in 2015, disturbed many.
In July 2018, coffee behemoth Starbucks set a target to phase out plastic straws from its tens of thousands of stores worldwide by 2020. In several parts of the world, travel and hospitality giants were looking into their enormous usage of single-use plastic straws, legislators were taking notice too. New York recently joined California in instituting a state-wide ban on single-use plastic bags, beginning March 2020.
“The timing of the launch was impeccable,” says Cohen. “There was a flood of large companies ditching plastic straws or taking a pledge to quit them forever. Municipal bans were just starting to gain momentum too.”
The time was ripe for change. Sensing a market for products that appealed to people’s conscience, Cohen and Pepper began work on FinalStraw. Pepper assisted with product development while Cohen focused on social media and marketing. “It is essentially a tent pole you can suck out of,” says Cohen about the straw. The duo 3-D printed the straw’s case and found a place in Los Angeles which helped them produce the straw.
They launched the product in April 2018 on the global crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, not knowing what to expect. “No one thought it was going to do as well as it did,” says Cohen. “Most friends said, ‘cool straw Emma, don’t quit your day job.’”
But when the campaign hit $200,000 within the first 48 hours, they knew they were onto something. It was evident that the product had a market, that it was viable.
The novelty helped spike enthusiasm amongst consumers, and it raised nearly $2 million on Kickstarter. The duo sold 180,000 units during the Kickstarter and pre-sale period and have shipped about 70,000 units in the past three months. Cohen says they have also partnered with NGOs, the non-profit Plastic Pollution Coalition, Absolut Vodka, Bloomingdale’s and several other retailers.
However, novelty can be a double-edged sword when it comes to convincing people of the price. Cohen says FinalStraw’s price point was a challenge when they were trying to introduce the concept but she believes the quality and durability of the product validates it. “It is better to buy something once and use it forever instead of using something once and buying it forever,” she says.
Cheaper knock-offs did begin to flood the online market as soon as the pre-orders started rolling. After all, innovation which arouses interest can never escape the bane of imitation. A lot of retailers began selling similarly designed products at about half the price on Amazon, eBay, Alibaba etc. To deal with this issue, the company has filed a global intellectual property patent to protect the product as well as established a task force to enforce it, if need be. It has been a difficult road, says Cohen as “there is no internet police and each platform cooperates to a different degree.” She also believes these cheaper products are counterproductive to the original purpose of waste reduction. She expects bootlegging to be an issue as long as the company creates popular products which are relatively easy to reproduce.
A line of sustainable products dubbed Foreverables™ is also in the pipeline, says Cohen. Encouraged by the reception of FinalStraw, Cohen believes there exists a market for products that are designed to last forever as people who wish to reduce the impact of their activities on the environment are on the rise. “Stay tuned for our line of Foreverables™,” she says, “including FinalFork™ and a smoothie straw.”