Inside the $3 billion race to kill plastic

These startups are capitalizing on consumer anxiety about climate change to market reusable straws, food wrap, and storage bags. Can they compete with plastic industry giants?

Friendly Heads-Up: Long Read

I’ll admit it’s taken me a while to come to terms with how dire the environmental crisis is. I assumed my everyday eco-friendly behaviors–like recycling and bringing reusable bags to the grocery store–were helping to stave off plastic pollution and carbon pollution.

But the numbers are in, and it’s clear that an apocalyptic disaster is hurtling toward us much faster than we previously anticipated. Most experts believe we’ll be living in a state of crisis by 2040, with food shortages and frequent natural disasters part of everyday life. U.S. carbon emissions surged by 3.4% in 2018, the largest increase in eight years, further accelerating the pace of climate change. Meanwhile, billions of plastic pieces are filling the oceans every year, killing off sea life and ending up in the food chain, causing liver damage to both animals and people.

In the face of such a massive crisis, my reusable shopping bag suddenly feels woefully inadequate. According to Euromonitor, global plastic consumption is about 300 million metric tons annually, which means that each human generates about 88 pounds of plastic a year. Another recent report found that 25% of the stuffwe try to recycle ends up in a landfill anyway because it is too contaminated with food and chemicals to be turned into new products. It will take radical change to our individual lifestyles, coupled with a sustained effort to pressure companies and governments into more eco-friendly policies, to turn the situation around.

[Photo: Abeego]

In the face of all this doom and gloom, a new wave of startups has popped up to meet consumer demand to cut down the amount of single-use plastic in our lives. Some entrepreneurs have been prompted by the same anxieties about looming environmental crisis to develop sustainable alternatives to everyday products, like straws, Ziploc bags, and Saran wrap. But they’re also taking advantage of our current cultural moment and appetite for plastic-free alternatives to develop products that are more ergonomic and effective than their less eco-friendly counterparts. Instead of focusing on the ensuing climate apocalypse, these startups are marketing a positive message about how these products can make life better.

“I think part of the reason the eco-world took so long to take off is that they’re often marketed from a really negative standpoint,” says Toni Desrosier, founder of Abeego, a beeswax paper that serves the same purpose of plastic cling wrap. “It’s always been, do you know how many turtles you’ve killed by using this?”

The business case for this new genre of startups is obvious: The annual market for plastic storage items like wrap and bags alone, according to one Nielsen report, is $2.9 billion, not including the market for plastic straws. At the same time, these companies are still in their infancy–and to succeed, they’ll have to go up against household brand names that have been around for decades. Can Americans break their plastic addiction?

[Photo: Abeego]

THE NEXT PLASTIC WRAP

Desrosier believes that people are motivated to change their behavior by focusing on what makes their life better, rather than just averting the apocalypse. “I’m trying to make the case that this is a product that can make you feel really good,” she says. “You don’t need to feel guilty, you don’t need to make a big change in your lifestyle, and it’s just a simple transition. It’s kind of like that threefold that shifts the consumer in my opinion.”

There’s a shocking amount of plastic in our kitchens. We’re used to thinking about the obvious things, like grocery bags. But a large part of what we put in those bags–produce, meats, snacks–all come encased in plastic.

[Photo: Abeego]

Here’s the thing: Plastic was never really the best way to store fruits and vegetables. “When you put your living food into an airtight environment, the living food is still emitting gas as it’s breaking down,” Desrosiers explains. “But in an airtight environment the gas gets trapped. It turns to excess condensation, it actually spoils your food faster than if you didn’t put in an airtight environment: You’ll get slime, and goo, and smell.”

Desrosier, who started her career as a nutritionist, first began thinking about the problems with plastic wrap a decade ago. At the time, her main concern was BPA, a chemical that occurred in many plastics before it was found to be harmful to humans, and banned. (It is now known to be a hormone disruptor and has been banned by the government in children’s products.)

As she researched, she discovered that a lot of plastic storage containers were never designed with the food in mind in the first place. Tupperware, for instance, was invented by a man called Earl Tupper who wanted to find a use for an industrial by-product called Polythylene Slag.

“He was a finding a use for a waste product, which was kind of cool, but in the process of doing that, he invented the first airtight food storage concept,” Desrosiers says. “Then the conversation just kept rolling forward without anybody asking whether airtight food wrap was good for food.”

This reality prompted Desrosier to return to the drawing board to consider a better way to store food. She determined that organic products–like fruit, vegetables, and cheese–need a skin-like barrier to prevent them from drying out. But this layer should not be airtight, so that gases can still flow in and out. Desrosier developed a wrap made from beeswax that accomplishes just that, and has sold it for the last decade as Abeego.

In the early days, Desrosier says it was hard to convince people to purchase the product. People had been so indoctrinated to see plastic as the solution to food storage, and few people were concerned about plastics pollution. But she says that has changed quickly over the last two or three years. These days, consumers are searching for alternatives to plastic wrap of their own accord, and finding her brand online.

“There has been a turning point in the market,” she says. “It’s not hard to be successful because consumers themselves are realizing that we’ve been living a disastrous lifestyle with plastics for the last 50 years. It’s a cross between realizing that they have a very unhappy relationship with their plastic products, and a moment of awakening that–holy shit–something really bad is happening to the planet.”

[Photo: Final Straw]

THE $1.8 MILLION STRAW

Emma Cohen and Miles Pepper, founders of reusable straw startup FinalStraw, have noticed a similar spike in concern about climate change and plastic pollution. After all, they’ve experienced the same anxiety about the destruction of the planet. Two years ago, Pepper read a news story about how straws were falling through the cracks in our waste disposal process and finding their way into the ocean, where they were choking and killing marine life.

“What moved me was this video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nose,” Pepper says. “Straws are the perfect size to cause real harm to this sea turtle. And yet we just blindly use them and throw them away.”

[Photo: Final Straw]

There’s been a growing awareness about how damaging straws are for the environment, and it hit a fever pitch last year, when the video that Pepper describes went viral. An organization called Strawless Oceanlaunched a campaign called #StopSucking that draws attention to the problem of plastic pollution and calls on people to lobby companies and governments to ban straws. It worked: Last year, California became the first state to ban plastic straws from tables, so customers can only receive one if they explicitly ask for one. Seattle, too, now bans single-use plastic straws and utensils. Large-scale companies are also eliminating plastic straws, including Starbucks, Marriott, and American Airlines.

Cohen and Pepper don’t believe these massive changes happened because companies themselves developed a conscience. They believe it was spurred by a change in public sentiment. “The corporate buy-in was pretty unprecedented,” says Pepper. “Corporations were voluntarily removing straws from their stores, and it shows they’re listening very closely to what consumers want, and as soon as we start demanding new things, they’re going to respond very quickly. Within a span of months after the outcry, everyone from Starbucks to Ikea to Alaska Airlines was banning straws.”

The straw bans also presented a business opportunity for the reusable straw market. In 2017, Cohen and Pepper believed they had a window to launch a startup that catered to people’s needs, and could stand out by innovating a better reusable straw. Right now, there are dozens of companies that make metal or bamboo straws, but there are issues with the current reusable straw experience. For one thing, carrying a straw around in your bag can be a little gross, since it can get dirty. It’s also difficult to remember to bring it with you at all.

Cohen and Pepper decided to develop a better straw that solves some of these issues. They’ve come up with a collapsible metal straw with a protective rubber tip to avoid hurting the roof of your mouth. What sets Final Straw apart is that it comes with a carrying case that can be attached to a key ring, making it easy to remember. It also comes with a collapsible squeegee and drying rack within the case, making it easy to keep everything clean. Cohen says that every part of the product is designed to make it convenient and safe to use, so that people would actually use it. “There are many reports of metal or glass straws causing mouth injuries so these are very real fears,” she says. “We wanted to design around these problems.”

Final Straw launched first on Kickstarter, where it generated a whopping $1,894,878 in support from more than 38,000 backers. It is now its own thriving startup. There are many eco-friendly consumers looking for a plastic straw alternative, but the demand for the product has grown exponentially as legislators and companies themselves have banned straws. And while the straws serve a very practical purpose when people go out to eat, the founders are equally excited about the fact that they are able to contribute to a larger conversation about pushing for more sustainability.

“I think the straw pollution problem is a good gateway into talking about our wasteful habits when it comes to single-use plastic,” says Pepper. “We also have a voice to encourage other businesses and startups that are working to reduce greenhouse gases.”

[Photo: Stasher]

THE REUSABLE BAG YOU CAN COOK WITH

As Final Straw’s founders were tinkering with a reusable straw concept, entrepreneur Kat Nouri was trying to find a solution to the problem of disposable plastic kitchen bags. These single-use baggies entered the mainstream when the Dow Chemical Company marketed them under the Ziploc brand starting in 1968, as a convenient way to store food and dispose of the original packaging. Most mainstream recycling programs do not accept these plastic bags.

Two years ago, Nouri developed Stasher, a self-sealing, airtight bag that looks identical to the disposable sandwich and snack bags we use at home, but is made out of nontoxic silicone. The standard sandwich bag size costs $12. The bags are now available online, as well as in many big stores, including Target. Stasher’s website features pictures of the bags being used in many ways, from storing and freezing food, to filling them with travel toiletries so that they are easy to display during TSA checks. “We made them in the same shape and sizes people had become accustomed to using because we thought it would be easier for them to transition from disposable to reusable bags,” she says.

[Photo: Stasher]

As she developed the products, Nouri realized that a silicone bag had many advantages that plastic did not. For one thing, you can easily stick them in the dishwasher. They are also heat-resistant, so it is possible to bake, boil, and even sous vide with these bags. On Stasher’s website, there are recipes that make it easy for you to marinate chicken or fish in the bag in the fridge, then place the whole package directly into the oven, sous vide machine, or Instant Pot. You can use the bags to pop corn in the microwave, eliminating the wasteful single-use microwavable popcorn bags. One recipe even shows you how to cook Thanksgiving turkey in a Stasher bag. Stasher bags now come in many colors: Some have cute cartoon designs on them to delight children who bring them to school as sandwich bags, and one collection has a shimmery exterior.

“There’s this idea that eco-friendly products are somehow worse than less sustainable products,” says Nouri. “But we’re proving that this isn’t true. If you rethink a product from the ground up, you can find ways to make the product even more functional, effective, and even more fun to use.”

[Photo: Stasher]

YOUR BEHAVIORS ARE A SIGNAL

These startups are making it easier to reduce the amount of plastic in our lives. This accomplishes several goals. It takes nonrenewable fossil fuels to manufacture plastics, all of which contributes to our carbon footprint. And reducing our personal plastic consumption means less plastic is ending up in landfills and oceans, where it will break into smaller particles, but never decompose.

But there is also some tension in their business models. Growing as a business means selling more products, which inherently means creating more waste, whether that comes in the form of packaging or shipping goods throughout the supply chain. These businesses are currently still very small, especially compared to the massive conglomerates they are competing against. As they grow, they will also need to be careful about not falling into new forms of waste and excess by encouraging consumers to buy more products than they need, like buying new straws and silicone bags every season in different colors.

For the time being, these companies have a role to play in helping us kick our addiction to the single-use plastic that fills our lives. While it is easy to believe that our own individual actions can do little when confronted with the massive amounts of carbon and plastic pollution being churned out by companies every single day, scientists say that these behaviors do matter, particularly because others are likely to follow our lead.

There is evidence that people are more likely to feel pressure to change their behavior when they observe others doing the right thing. More of us are living lifestyles of conspicuous conservation, a term coined by economists to refer to partaking in eco-friendly behaviors to signal how enlightened and progressive we are, as opposed to conspicuous consumption. Through these visible acts of sustainable living, we can influence our children, families, neighbors, and friends to do the same, which–taken together–can dramatically reduce the amount of pollution.

But we should also think of our choices as a way of speaking through our actions. Wallet activism works: Purchasing products from eco-conscious brands asserts the notion that there is a demand for sustainable products. This can change the market, prompting larger companies to rethink their product lines and manufacturing processes.

“Our mission is to reduce plastic waste through conscious consumerism,” says Miles Pepper of Final Straw. “What we’ve found is that there are enough people out there who believe in what we are doing to support a company. And with enough companies like ours, there’s no doubt that big corporations will pay attention, and realize the customer is looking for better.”


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