Photo of cocktail with paper straw at Gravitas by Laura Hayes
Photo of cocktail with paper straw at Gravitas by Laura Hayes

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“Last week was the first week in three months that I didn’t have to say the word straw once an hour—it’s all I do, talk about straws,” says Scott Attman, the vice president of Acme Paper and Supply Company. The Maryland-based business sells products to myriad restaurants in D.C. “We’re in this odd period that we’re in right now where everyone wants paper straws but can’t get them.”

The national push for the elimination of plastic straws has companies like Acme Paper scrambling to meet demand. The firestorm was in part ignited by a 2015 video of a marine biologist extracting a decomposing straw from a sea turtle’s nostril, drawing blood. A movement ensued. Both Starbucks and its home city of Seattle have pledged to eliminate plastic straws.

Critics of the push to end plastic straw use say it puts those with disabilities in a vulnerable position. Some individuals require a straw to drink (or eat), and straws made out of alternative materials lack some of plastic straws’ functionalities. Then there’s the argument that plastic straws are only a minuscule part of overall plastic ocean pollution.

Here in the other Washington, Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Jack Evans introduced a bill that would make it illegal for any food service entity to sell, use, or provide a plastic straw or stirrer with any food or beverage unless the straw or stirrer is made of a material that can be composted. Single-use, disposable plastic straws are already banned in the District, but there’s been a lack of enforcement.

When Post critic Tom Sietsema capsized La Vie in a zero-star review last week, he mentioned that “a woke restaurant offers paper or reusable straw.” He’s paying attention and so are consumers, according to Attman. Appearance is everything.

“In the early 2000s, people were looking for different ways to make plastic,” Attman says. Producers were able to make plastic straws that were fully compostable (in 90 days or less) that look and feel with plastic. “But with the move towards paper straws, the compostable plastic straws aren’t preferred by operators. The first impression is that the restaurant is still using plastic even though the process is the same.” 

Even straws made out of alternative materials like corn, potatoes, or tapioca that Acme Paper has been sourcing for at least 10 years don’t pass the consumer smell test. Attman says they cost only pennies more than paper straws, but operators still shun them, putting the company in a holding pattern as it waits for paper straws.

Attman says that Acme Paper placed orders for paper straws in early spring. The first truckload of inventory is scheduled to arrive in about a week. The lion’s share of it will go to major operators including CAVA and Sweetgreen. “If you would have called me in March and said, ‘I want paper straws.’ No problem. I’ll get it to you next week. In April the lead time extended to three or four weeks.” The first week of May, the gap jumped to 90 days. And now it’s four months. “We’re now ordering for January. We’re that far out.” 

There’s only one domestic producer of paper straws, according to a USA Today article. Indiana-based Aardvark Straws, founded in 1888, had the patent for the first paper straw. In the past year, Aardvark Straws enjoyed a growth rate of 5,000 percent, according to the article. Last month, Hoffmaster Group acquired Aardvark Straws to help the smaller company keep up.

“There are lots of people waiting on us to get started,” Attman says. “At this point everyone is aware of the state of the union of paper straws in the industry. They’re patient.”

Leonard Paper Company, another Maryland-based business, also supplies area restaurants with paper products. “Pretty much all of the [paper] straws, with the exception of Aardvark, are produced overseas,” says John Leonard, the director of sales. China is one of the chief producers, which concerns him. “Your neighbor at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue might change some of that with the tariffs—[Straws] might be one of the products that is a tariff item,” he speculates. Donald Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One earlier today that he’s prepared to swiftly impose tariffs on an additional $267 billion in goods from China, according to Bloomberg.

But Leonard is hopeful that supply will start meeting demand this month. “We have orders out with manufacturers,” he says. “We get them in sporadically and as soon as they come in, they go out the door.” 

He says restaurants and other businesses are still ordering standard plastic straws, but the public is starting to see the benefits of paper straws over plastic straws. “The shift doesn’t happen automatically … paper straws are more expensive than plastic straws. There’s that issue to overcome for restaurants.” He calculates that paper straws are two-to-three times more expensive than plastic straws.

While these paper companies are currently mitigating stressors like phones ringing off the hooks for a product they can’t get their hands on right away, they’re pleased with the direction towards more environmentally friendly materials. “The whole market is going to recyclable and compostable items,” Leonard says. “I’m seeing a lot of positives.” 

Attman echoes that sentiment. “Everything is a catalyst for the next thing … Maybe this is the thing that wakes people up to be more aware of the environment and themselves as a responsible human being.”