Emma Grose founded Mable, a bamboo toothbrush brand, to mitigate plastic waste and environmental ruin. Shortly after Mable began shipping brushes to homes in 2016, Grose was touring her supplier in China, and encountered another plastic-busting solution.
Instead of sipping beverages through plastic straws, people were using stems of wheat.
“We asked, why isn’t this more of a thing?” says Grose.
She packed about 4,000 of the sustainable straws into suitcases, and brought them back to her home in San Francisco. At the time, the critique of plastic straws and the waste they create was just beginning to reach the mainstream.
She wondered if there was much of a market for alternatives.
Restaurants First For Sustainable Straws
A restaurateur friend began sampling them with customers. The feedback persuaded Grose and her business partners to import more straws, and start a company — Hay Straws.
“At that time, paper straws were out, but they got soggy. For a lot of people, our straws solved that problem. They are biodegradable, you don’t cut down trees to make them, and they aren’t soggy,” says Grose.
The company pre-sold its entire first shipment before it landed in its California port.
Demand was nuts — sales doubled every month during 2019. Keeping up with orders challenged the team. Nobody was manufacturing the wheat-stem straws at scale; they all were hand-cut. So the Hay Straws team worked with Chinese partners to mechanize the stem-cutting process. They figured out reliable sourcing and testing of the product, all within a year. And in November of 2018, Hay Straws began selling its sustainable straws. In addition, Hay repurposes wheat stems that don’t work as straws as coffee stirrers.
In the United States alone, people use 500 million straws every day, according to a study by DataM Intelligence. Out of the 18 million tons of plastic that flow into the ocean every year, 0.025% of it is plastic straws.
But even as demand for straws remains strong, increasingly more jurisdictions are banning plastic straws, and consumers are looking for more environmentally friendly options.
Alternatives to plastic straws emerging
One Arizona company, Footprint LLC, now produces 27 million paper straws every day, eliminating tons of plastic straw waste from landfills and oceans. Another company, Fuling Global, built a manufacturing plant in Monterrey, Mexico that annually produces 10,000 tons of paper straws and cups.
Innovations beyond paper are emerging. Last year, for example, Ahlstrom-Munksjö launched celluStraw, a U-shaped straw made from renewable fibers.
And now the market enjoys straws made from wheat stems, too.
Wheat is an annual crop, and grown around the world. Farmers harvest wheat berries, the fruited part of the plant, which gets dried and eventually heads to mills, where it is ground into wheat flour. Wheat stalks often are formed into hay, for feeding livestock. But a lot of stalks never get used.
No Paper, No Soggy
Hay Straws buys stems from farmers, cuts them to length, rinses them, runs them through a high-heat sterilizer and then conducts quality control. Some stems just don’t work either as straws or coffee stirrers.
A striking hay straw advantage? Unlike paper straws, ones made from hay stems do not grow soggy. In fact, they grow agreeably pliable after they dunk into a cup of liquid. Some other plastic-ditching straw solutions, like bamboo and stainless steel straws, never gain flexibility.
Another strength is the straw’s compostability. Many recipes for compost already include hay as an ingredient. Grose says Hay Straws break down within 42 days, and are excellent growing mediums for cucumbers and barley.
Finally, Hay Straws’ packaging rejects plastic (naturally) as well as bioplastics, which are better than petroleum-based plastics but remain inferior to simple compostable products.
“It’s hard,” says Grose. “Big retailers like cheap and easy packaging. They like it when you can see through a plastic pane to observe the product. We have gotten more creative about how you show the products without using those ingredients.”
Grose estimates that 90 percent of Hay Straws’ business comes through wholesale accounts, like restaurants. COVID-19 upended the business in the short-term. The first few months, when few food businesses were open and buying things like straws, posed as an existential threat to the business. But Grose says business has picked up, and that the company should be able to “ride the wave.”
“Out timing was excellent,” says Grose. “When we launched the anti-plastic movement was using straws as its focus. At the time bioplastics was getting a big push, and people hated paper straws. Hay Straws was a welcome alternative. We can compete on price. We aren’t cutting down trees. And we are a simple byproduct of wheat production.”