Could a plastic straw ban be good for business?

With new regulations looming, Canadian small business owners see an opportunity

 
(Supplied)

Aimee Promislow has long been a craftsperson, making and selling glass jewelry beads, fridge magnets, hair clips and vinyl photo frames from her in-house studio. Her Vancouver-based glass straw company, Glass Sipper, is an extension of this passion.

So finding a sustainable alternative to the clutter of plastic straws in her kitchen felt like another DIY project waiting to be engineered. Scouring the internet one night, she came across straws made of glass, instead of plastic.

“It was definitely this eureka moment,” she says. Not only was the project creative and hands-on, but also embodied her desire to create something useful and environmentally-friendly. After a long night tinkering in her workshop, she decided to open a company. Two years later, Glass Sipper was born in 2014.

Read more: Give the gift of no plastic sipping for the holidays

But despite the potential she saw in her product, consumers remained skeptical. “People looked at me like I was crazy,” she said. “There was no awareness at all as to why the product would need to exist.” In their first year of business, Promislow says the company wasn’t able to break even.

Business started to pick up in 2015 because of a viral YouTube video, she says, showing researchers pulling free a four-inch plastic straw from the bloodied nostril of a Costa Rican sea turtle. That turtle quickly became the face of an anti-plastic movement, leading customers to support companies like Glass Sipper, which offer eco-friendly plastic alternatives.

“Finally people started caring,” said Jana Campbell, Waterloo-based founder behind the zero-waste lifestyle company, Fenigo Inc.

“All of a sudden there was this huge demand,” she says. Fenigo Inc. carries a variety of zero-waste products, from lunchboxes to backpacks, along with an array of reusable bamboo, silicone, paper and metal straws. But after the turtle video? “I used to joke that we could have just been selling straws at that point and we would’ve been fine,” Campbell says.

With the Trudeau government proposing plans to ban single-use plastics by the year 2021, including plastic straws, cutlery, takeout containers and other items, Canadian small business owners and the plastics industry must ask what the ban will mean for business.
But those leading the straw revolution celebrate its arrival, both for the environmental and financial benefits they hope it will bring.

“Once consumers hear plastic straws aren’t sustainable, they’ll start looking for alternatives and that will definitely help us,” says Promislow. It wouldn’t be the first-time such policies made for good business: when Starbucks announced plans to phase out plastic straws back in April, she says online sales rocketed. Over the course of three months, Glass Sipper went from supplying five stores to 70.

But Leah Hayes, co-owner of Vancouver-island based Enviro Glass Straw Ltd., says consumers may also turn to internationally imported sustainable goods, which are sold at a cheaper price point. Those products have traditionally been the industry’s biggest competition. Still, she says she hopes Canadian consumers make a conscious decision to shop locally.

“More people are becoming aware that they can purchase a high-quality Canadian product,” she says. Her company is a small family-run business, selling glass straws from a home gallery and studio.

Yet regardless of how financial incentives play out, Campbell says she’s most excited because the ban embodies her “personal passions,” behind promoting an environmentally-friendly lifestyle.

Growing up in Latvia during the 1970s and 1980s, she says most people only had the bare necessities. Customers would bring reusable bags to the supermarket for produce, and dairy was sold inside reusable glass jars, which they would return to the store afterwards. “We didn’t have all the throw-away disposable luxuries that are here in Canada,” she says. “It gives me shivers to see how much unnecessary garbage is produced and thrown away every moment.”

Promislow also says she hopes the ban starts a conversation around the everyday actions consumers and corporations alike can take when it comes to replacing plastics with eco-friendly alternatives. “There are so many things that are made from plastic that we don’t necessarily need to be using,” she said. “There are great sustainable alternatives out there.”

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