Fort Wayne's paper straw company leads the charge on global change

When you hear the words “paper or plastic,” you might be thinking of bags at the grocery store.

But this year, instead of bags, straws have risen to the top of the list as the most talked about single-use plastics polluting the environment.

Since January, lawmakers and eco-conscious citizens have been bringing the tiny plastic tube’s impact on the world to light.

It’s estimated that Americans use 390 million straws per day, adding up to 142 billion per year, and many of these end up polluting the oceans or fatally ingested by wildlife.

So across the country, cities and states have been working to ban or limit the use of plastic straws in businesses, and when they do, they often turn to Fort Wayne.

Aardvark® paper straws, a privately-held company based in the Summit City, is disrupting the international straw market with the growing popularity of its durable paper drinking straws.

Aardvark Straws allows for customization in terms of colors and patterns, like the ones shown here.

To date, Aardvark is the only manufacturer of paper straws in the U.S., so as the laws around paper versus plastic change, many restaurants, hospitals, and service industries nationwide are relying on their products. 

The company has two production plants in the Summit City, and the Indianapolis Star reports that they are regularly shipping hundreds of millions of straws to customers in all 50 states and 34 countries.

But if you ask Aardvark’s Sales Representative and Marketing Specialist, Kara Woodring, it all started with a simple request.

Aardvark®'s parent company, Precision Products Group, was producing tubing solutions at the time the eco-conscious Ted’s Montana Grill asked them to re-invent the paper straw about 12 years ago.

“We started from scratch with information we had in our archives,” Woodring says.

What they came up with was a straw made from natural papers, which claims to be the most sustainable and durable paper straw on the market.

“We haven’t found any straws that will last as long as ours,” Woodring says, noting that Aardvark straws can last up to four hours in a beverage without getting soggy (which is the main complaint about paper straws versus plastic).

That’s where the innovation piece comes into play.

The actual production process is both an art and a science, Woodring says. That’s because Aardvark uses special adhesives that contribute to the strength of its straw. Other factors related to craftsmanship enter the equation, too.

“What makes it special is how we wind the straw,” she says. “There’s a certain technique to it.”

Aardvark uses only FDA-compliant, food-grade materials that are marine degradable and compostable.

The company found that its straws will break down in about 6 months in a landfill and within two years in a marine setting.

Since plastic is a relatively newer material, it's harder for scientists to determine its decomposition rate. But sources like the Earth Day Network (EDN) paint a grim picture.

"Virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form (with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated)," its website says.

While that news may be disheartening, what has been encouraging for Woodring is the response the paper straw movement has seen from customers in the food, healthcare, and entertainment industries.

Even though paper straws cost about 2 cents each--twice cost of one-cent plastic straws--Woodring says consumers have been surprisingly supportive of making the switch.

Aardvark's distribution model, which strategically taps into this momentum, has been helpful, too.

Woodring says the company started out the “traditional way,” with a direct sales approach, before marketing to environmental groups, like the Surfrider Foundation, which have a vested interest in paper over plastic.

This new network of conscious consumers has made paper straws “an easy sell," she says, because people were already so excited about the product that they naturally handled outreach on their own.

“Ultimately, they would educate their cities without having our salespeople go to more cities,” she explains. 

But while the great paper straw debate sweeps the nation (and Allen County), it's still a hard sell in some establishments.

If you want to see Aardvark straws at a business near you, Woordring says the solution is simple: You have to ask for it.

"Ask for alternatives, and talk to the (restaurant) manager about why it’s important," she says.

Climbing sales for Aardvark straws around the world are proof that many consumers are doing just that.
 
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