Smart Plastic Technologies, LLC, is a specialist in the development, production and marketing of unique additives for use in polymers which provide biodegradation, antimicrobial, antifungal, production tracing, film thickness reduction and an oxygen scavenger designed to extend the shelf life of food products.
Smart Plastic Technologies announced the opening of their first West Coast office, located in Los Angeles, California. Due to the substantial growth in business and interest in the Company’s additives which prove to provide a resolution to the negative impact of plastic on our environment, the decision was made to open an office in that specific market. The office opened officially on January 1, 2019. It will be managed by Mr. Nosi Vafaei, Chief Operating Officer and his staff.
“Smart Plastic Technologies is delighted to find itself in the position of expanding operations in direct response to market demand. Our commitment remains strong to continue to earn and develop our position as one of the nation’s leading innovators of sophisticated technologies which improve the usefulness of plastics” said Tim Murtaugh, CEO of SPT.
The Los Angeles office address is
Smart Plastic Technologies
318 West Wilson Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 91203
Mr. Nosi Vafaei has joined the senior management team at Smart Plastic as Chief Operating officer effective January, 1, 2019 to in response to the momentum business that has developed. He will be responsible for working closely with CEO Tim Murtaugh in Executing on Company Strategy and Plans while overseeing the daily management of the Company. For additional information about Nosi, please refer to our ABOUT/Leadership page on this website. We all join in wishing Nosi success as he joins the SPT Team.
SmartPlastic founder Tim Murtaugh was recently interviewed on a “Bloomberg Market Minute” segment concerning the dilemma with plastic straws. SmartPlastic has recently introduced a fully biodegradable plastic straw in response to growing environmental concern and the banning of plastic straws in several cities. Listen to the Bloomberg interview to better understand how SmartPlastic’s new technology fits into the equation.
SmartPlastic will once again exhibit their technologies at Pack Expo 2018 in Chicago’s McCormick Place on October 14-17. In addition to information about their full portfolio of sophisticated technologies, SmartPlastic will introduce the fully biodegradable plastic straw developed in partnership with Best Diamond Straws. The company will also announce a breakthrough oxygen scavenger technology. Designed to provide the benefits of a scavenger directly into plastic film, this technology is FDA approved for food packaging.
“Smart Plastic Technologies is proud of its position as one of the nation’s leading innovators of sophisticated technologies which improve the usefulness of plastics. Our new oxygen scavenger is designed to allow the removal of traditional devices and preservatives while extending the shelf life of food.” said Tim Murtaugh, CEO of SPT.
Smart Plastic Technologies, LLC, is a specialist in the development, production and marketing of unique additives for use in polymers which provide biodegradation, antimicrobial, antifungal, production tracing, film thickness reduction and an oxygen scavenger designed to extend the shelf life of food products.
Smart Plastic Technologies, LLC, is a specialist in the development, production and marketing of unique additives for use in polymers which provide biodegradation, antimicrobial, antifungal, production tracing and film thickness reduction properties in finished products.
The Company is pleased to announce the release of an Oxygen Scavenger Additive. Developed by SPT with extensive independent testing, this FDA approved technology has now been released to the market. It is an innovative fresh food oxygen scavenging prolonger that extends the shelf life of fruit, meats, dairy and bakery products. Introduced into packaging film at a 1-3% inclusion it is economical and efficient. Its presence in film now allows the removal of all typical oxygen scavenger devices in packaging.
“Smart Plastic Technologies is very pleased to provide this sophisticated technology to the food packaging industry. It represents another innovative SPT technology developed in response to market need. The industry has embraced it with great enthusiasm.” said Tim Murtaugh, CEO of SPT.
Airport security is there to protect you, but it may also give you the sniffles — or worse.
To all the places and surfaces we’ve been warned are teeming with germs or bacteria — your pets, the subway seat, airplane cabins, the A.T.M. — add the airport security tray.
The plastic trays — used at airport checkpoints around the globe and touched by millions of passengers as they drop shoes, laptops, luggage and other items into them to clear X-ray scanners — have been found to harbor a variety of germs, including the ones responsible for the common cold, according to researchers in Europe.
Scientists from the University of Nottingham in England and the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare swabbed frequently touched surfaces at Helsinki Airport in Finland during and after peak hours in the winter of 2016 and picked up traces of rhinovirus, the source of the common cold, and of the influenza A virus.
They found traces on half the luggage trays, more than on any of the other surfaces they tested. None of these viruses were found on toilet surfaces at the airport, they said.
The findings, published in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases, could help improve public health strategies in the fight against the spread of infectious diseases worldwide.
The study could also help educate people on how the infections we try to avoid each winter spread, Jonathan Van-Tam, a professor of health protection at the University of Nottingham, said in an emailed statement on Wednesday.
Scientists say that a common technique for applying hand sanitizer, one recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is inferior to an alternative method with twice as many steps.
Many of the surfaces we touch on a daily basis harbor and can spread germs. These include mobile phones, kitchen sponges and even cute bathtub rubber ducks. But air travel is known to accelerate the worldwide spread of diseases such as the flu, released naturally, and potentially of others released intentionally.
Smart Plastic Technologies LLC (SPT) says it has developed two products — an additive and a material — that cause plastic to rapidly degrade in response to businesses seeking alternatives to plastic straws, which may be used for only a matter of minutes yet litter land and waterways for eons.
Best Diamond Plastics LLC in Chicago turned to the Knoxville, Tenn.-based company to come up with a solution for its fast-food customers, including McDonald’s, which has a goal of sourcing all packaging and straws from renewable, recycled or certified sources by 2025.
Founded 10 years ago on the city’s South Side, the minority-owned company has heard from other buyers of its polypropylene straws and stirrers like Wendy’s, Dairy Queen, Portillo’s and Jack in the Box.
“They’re all interested in a better mousetrap,” Best Diamond President Mark Tolliver said in a phone interview. “They want something all their customers will accept, not just some.”
Best Diamond Plastics LLC“Straws are dead center of the environmentalists’ target list. It’s something they see as a nonessential and a contributor to plastic litter in oceans and on the ground. We get that,” said Best Diamond CEO Mark Tolliver.
A YouTube video of a turtle with a straw lodged in its nose and images of shorelines awash with plastic and skeletons of sea birds with plastic-filled bellies are moving individuals, cities and corporations to action.
Starbucks will eliminate plastic straws at its 28,000 stores by 2020. The company designed a strawless PP lid for iced coffee, tea and espressos and will switch to paper or compostable plastic straws made from polylactic acid for Frappuccinos. The changes will eliminate the need to produce more than 1 billion plastic straws per year and discard them into a waste stream never really equipped to recycle the thin extruded products.
American Airlines is also on board. The airline will serve drinks with biodegradable straws or wooden stir sticks starting at airport lounges and then in November offer bamboo replacements on its 14,250 daily flights. The moves will reduce the airline’s plastics use by more than 71,000 pounds of per year.
McDonald’s is looking at several alternatives for its 37,000 stores in 100 countries. The company will switch to paper straws by 2019 in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The U.K. plans to ban all sales of single-use plastics as early as next year and synthetic straw sentiments are changing next door in Ireland, where the coastal town of Westport made a voluntary commitment to use biodegradable straws starting June 1.
McDonald’s is also testing plastic straw alternatives in Belgium and later this year will do the same in the United States, France, Sweden, Norway and Australia. And in Malaysia, the company will test out a plan to offer straws upon request only.
“We understand that recycling infrastructure, regulations and consumer behaviors vary from city to city and country to country, but we plan to be part of the solution and help influence powerful change,” McDonald’s spokeswoman Andrea Abate told Plastics News in an email.
McDonald’s was the first customer of Best Diamond, which opened in 2008 with five employees and has grown to 76. Tolliver is determined to keep his customers and employees while meeting demands from the public.
“I believe in preserving the planet. We only have one,” Tolliver said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to be a contributor to the solution as opposed to being a contributor to the problem. I’m sure there’s a solution that’s a win-win, and we’re looking to find it. I’m a cup half-full kind of guy.”
That’s where SPT comes in. Satisfying quality requirements for fast-food chains that serve a variety of hot, cold, foamy and frozen beverages while meeting eco-friendly expectations of the world seems like a tall order. However, SPT CEO Tim Murtaugh said in phone and email interviews that the challenge has been met in two ways that render plastic biodegradable.
A couple of options
SPT says it developed a bioassimilation additive that causes plastic to fully biodegrade when exposed to oxygen. It does its job in the open environment be it land or sea. The additive is a magnesium salt-based formulation that works in all plastics but PET, causing a typical straw to mostly break down within 18 months.
“Total biodegradation then occurs within approximately five years or less, very much the same as a leaf,” Murtaugh said. “The environmental factors have an effect; thus, it is not possible to claim that it will perform the same everywhere.”
SPT’s other new product, a material with a bio-based organic compound, replaces a variety of plastics like PP, Murtaugh said. It works only in composting environments, which require certain carbon-to-nitrogen ratios, temperatures and levels of moisture and oxygen. SPT says it complies with industry standards of the American Society for Testing and Materials, including a provision that calls for most of the carbon in plastics to be converted to gas within 180 days (ASTM 6400).
The material Starbucks is considering, PLA, is currently used to produce compostable plastics. But Murtaugh said it is expensive and, like SPT’s new material, only breaks down within the confines of composting facilities.
Tolliver is interested in both options but thinks the additive, which can be used to produce oxobiodegradable straws, might have wider appeal. In the presence of oxygen, he said, the additive causes the straws to break down to the point of not leaving any evidence of plastic in 24 months.
“You still have a good product that works for the customer, the end user, and also biodegrades similar to paper. It breaks down into biomass, carbon dioxide and water. I think it’s a great solution,” Tolliver said.
The additive has been approved by the Federal Drug Administration and adds less than half a penny to production costs.
Of SPT’s two alternatives for making plastic straws and other single-use products more palatable, Murtaugh said, “We anticipate the market will swing fully to the bioassimilation product within a year due to the superior technology.”
The additive has been sucking up a lot of attention from Best Diamond and other plastic straw producers whose needs extend beyond paper, stainless steel, glass, food-grade silicone, wheat, uncooked pasta and other options.
“We are in highly active conversations with some big players in both the straw production business as well as fast food because it not only works but it costs substantially less than paper or PLA,” Murtaugh said. “Paper costs a fortune and the carbon footprint is catastrophic to the environment. PLA is expensive and requires a composting environment to work.”
A straw made from PLA laying on the beach isn’t going to biodegrade, Murtaugh said.
“Ours will biodegrade laying on the beach, and it costs less than PLA or paper,” he said. “This is a real development milestone for the industry, and we’re very excited that we’re the guys that developed it.”
SPT’s additive is “programmable” in terms of the useful life of the finished product but works earlier if it “escapes” through an improper disposal stream, the company’s website says.
“Our customers tell us how long a useful period of time they want built into their product. We formulate accordingly,” Murtaugh said.
SPT explains the different stages of how the additive affects the product’s controlled useful life prior to natural degradation on its website.
“At a preplanned time, due to the metal salt and antioxidants in our formulation, the carbon-carbon bonds in the plastic’s molecular chains begin to break down,” the website states.
Antioxidants prevent the metal salt from reacting with oxygen until the preplanned time period is up, Michael Stephens, SPT’s technology director, explained in an email. Then, the antioxidants are no longer effective and the metal salt reacts with oxygen to create free radicals that attack the plastic’s carbon chain backbone, making smaller chain pieces. (The antioxidants also protect the magnesium salt during molding of the plastic). The carbon chains continue to fail and oxygen bonds with the carbon and produces CO2. The remaining molecular structure continues to shrink to smaller pieces, allowing microorganisms to access and “eat” the carbon and hydrogen. The plastic item deteriorates over a period of months.
“Actual biodegradation has commenced and the product is no longer truly a plastic,” the website explains. “Bioassimilation occurs similar to ordinary organic waste. The item will fully degrade until it becomes nothing more than CO2, water and biomass. The process can be accelerated by UV rays and heat. The additive contains no heavy metals and can be recycled.”
ASTM is considering a new standard to accommodate the additive technology, according to SPT.
“We developed it in response to demand for a straw, but it can be used in many other applications,” Murtaugh said. “Think of the lids on coffee cups and things of that nature. These are the companies we’re already talking to.”
Despite the anticipated appeal of the additive, SPT says it was important to develop a compost-compliant product, which Murtaugh says costs “slightly more.” Many cities enacting bans on single-use plastics like straws and utensils have adopted ordinances that allow recyclable or compostable plastic products and that essentially require compliance with the ASTM standard, Murtaugh said.
On July 1, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban plastic straws, utensils and cocktail picks at its 5,000 restaurants, bars and coffee houses. Only compostable plastic or paper straws can be given to customers. Some environmentalists are encouraging businesses and their patrons to pick paper straws. They too are pointing out that compostable straws don’t degrade in marine environments while noting that paper can dissolve in the ocean within hours.
Seattle and Starbucks also have had to address some backlash from people with disabilities. One woman, for example, who has cerebral palsy and limited use of her arms says she can only sip beverages with a bendable plastic straw because other materials collapse or aren’t flexible. Because of such concerns, Seattle is reiterating that there is an exception to the ban.
“We want to make sure it’s understood by food-service businesses that the ban does not apply to disposable flexible plastic drinking straws when needed by customers due to medical or physical conditions and for whom flexible compostable paper straws are unsuitable,” said Susan Fife-Ferris, director of solid waste planning and program management for Seattle Public Utilities, told local media.
Seattle also has temporary waivers valid through June 30, 2019, for disposable long-handled thick plastic soda spoons when required and used for thick drinks; metal foil, metal foil-faced papers and engineered composite papers used to wrap hot food, such as hamburgers and burritos; and portion cups that are 2 ounces or less if used for hot foods or requiring lids.
Failure to comply with the food service ware ordinance may result in a $250 fine.
Doing their best
Meanwhile, back at Best Diamond, Tolliver tries to keep up morale as he gives updates to employees.
“We’re not saying the sky is falling. We’re talking about the solutions we’re trying to put forth,” he said. “A lot of our employees have been here a long time and it’s kind of a family industry. I don’t know any other way to run a company. I’m not a big corporate guy. I just want to have something that provides positive returns for the people who are part of it.”
Tolliver started Best Diamond with partners and a commitment to the South Side, where crime, unemployment and poverty have been chronic problems. McDonald’s started ordering products right away.
“They wanted to be a part of trying to improve the area where they do business,” Tolliver said. “That’s one reason we were able to come together.”
Straws are a commodity, he added, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of capital to get into the business so there are a lot of players, especially in Asia.
“We started this business knowing it wouldn’t be a slam dunk. But I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. I’m accustomed to challenges,” Tolliver said. “We started the business to bring more jobs to the community and more importantly a message to the community that if you work hard, keep your nose to the grindstone and get an education, you can have positive outcomes.”
However, the message is drowned out a bit these days with so many people speaking out against plastic straws.
“Straws are dead center of the environmentalists’ target list. It’s something they see as a nonessential and a contributor to plastic litter in oceans and on the ground. We get that,” Tolliver said. “We want to provide a solution — a good one that solves the main problems of litter on the ground and in the ocean.”
Tolliver thinks SPT is onto something with the additive.
“I feel it can work and is viable, but not only does the solution have to be effective, it has to meet social requirements. People, in general, have to feel good about it,” Tolliver said. “We’re doing our best to put forth a solution that we think will be acceptable.”
Plastics News correspondent Michael Lauzon contributed to this report.
The parasite that causes this intestinal illness was found in 6 oz., 12 oz. and 28 oz. vegetable trays containing fresh broccoli, cauliflower, celery sticks, carrots and dill dip sold to select retailers in the above-mentioned states, as well as in Illinois and Indiana.
The veggie packs have a “best if enjoyed by” date of June 17, 2018, or earlier, according to a June 15 release by the Food and Drug Administration.
Symptoms from this outbreak were first reported on May 14, and the ages of victims range from 13 to 79 years of age, according to CNN.
Businesses that reportedly sold the tainted veggies include Kwik Trip, Kwik Star, Demond’s, Sentry, Potash, Meehan’s, Country Market, Food Max Supermarket and Peapod.
The parasites found in the veggie packs have been linked to various stomach illnesses and can also cause fever and fatigue, according to the The New York Times.
Symptoms of cyclosporiasis include watery diarrhea and frequent, sometimes explosive, bowel movements, which typically show up a week after people ingest food containing the parasite.
The number of outbreaks could continue to climb, according to University of Minnesota professor Michael T. Osterholm, a food-borne disease expert who said tracking the outbreaks will be challenging.
“By the time cases are detected, the product is long gone,” he told the Times. “It’s very hard to trace back.”
Osterholm said he suspected the actual number of cases was much higher than the 212 confirmed so far by health officials.
Although the illness can be treated with antibiotics, symptoms can last from a few days to a few months. In some cases, a patient who reports feeling better may get sick again.
Anyone who has consumed any of the recalled vegetable trays and developed symptoms should seek medical attention.
It is imperative that potential victims tell their doctors they may have been exposed to the parasite, as specific lab tests are required to diagnose the infection.
Del Monte Fresh Produce, which is a separate entity from Del Monte Foods, did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Craig Graffius started EcoGlass Straws 12 years ago with three decades of glass-making experience and his vision for an alternative to the ubiquitous plastic straw. What he didn’t have was anyone clamoring for his product.
Today, his tiny four-person shop in Hood River, Oregon, is gearing up to turn out 2,000 handcrafted glass straws an hour. That’s up from the current pace of 125 an hour, or 1,000 a day.
EcoGlass’s surging output underscores a wave of change sweeping through the supply chain as the straw emerges as a central symbol of the world’s plastic trash crisis. With consumers searching for greener options, companies from Starbucks Corp. to McDonald’s Corp. to MGM Resorts International are responding.
“Everybody’s got to find a replacement,” said Graffius, who has seen orders more than triple in the past year after a long struggle to convince buyers his wares were more than just a novelty. “We didn’t anticipate this happening. We were going to really hit the market.’’ But instead, “it’s hitting us.”
Plastic straws are just one example of how companies are being forced to adapt to changing public attitudes about the environment. For some, abandoning traditional plastic raises costs, threatens sales and forces uncomfortable conversations with customers. Others see an opportunity for new business with the rise in demand for alternatives.
The furor dates to a viral 2015 video of marine biologists pulling a straw from deep inside the nose of a sea turtle. Then in 2017 the “Strawless in Seattle” campaign motivated cities to take action. The public outcry escalated to the point McDonald’s, Starbucks and MGM have vowed to phase out their reliance on plastic straws globally. American Airlines Group Inc. said Tuesday it would replace plastic straws and stir sticks with more “eco-friendly” straw and bamboo options. Alaska Air Group Inc. said in May it would phase out single-use plastic straws.
While straws account for just .03 percent of the 8 million metric tons of plastic that enters the ocean each year, according to a 2015 study, the disturbing images refocused the world’s attention on the problem.
“The anti-single-use-plastic movement is much bigger than those who identify as environmentalists,” said Maisie Ganzler, brand chief for Bon Appetit Management Co., a food-service chain that on May 31 said it would stop using traditional plastic straws. “When people see the photographic evidence of the amount of plastic pollution in our oceans and in the bodies of birds, fish, turtles and whales, it’s stomach-turning no matter what your politics are,” Ganzler said.
In recent months, countries in Europe have begun announcing bans or limits. As of July 1, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to outlaw plastic straws, following similar measures by smaller towns along the East and West Coasts. Even where laws haven’t changed, the public outcry is pressuring companies to respond or risk alienating customers. That pressure travels up and down the supply chain.
Best Diamond Plastics co-founder and President Mark Tolliver has grown his straw-making business to more than 70 employees from the five he started with in 2008, in large part thanks to his first major customer: McDonald’s. Now his 73,000 square-foot plant in Chicago churns out plastic implements for customers including five big fast-food companies.
Tolliver started talking with McDonald’s about more environmentally friendly options a few years ago as concerns about plastic trash gained traction. That sent him searching for a solution that wouldn’t turn his growing business upside down. Competing against a range of entirely different materials, such as glass, paper or metal, Best Diamond decided to stick with the material it knew best, but engineer it to quickly decompose.
Tolliver teamed up with Smart Plastic Technologies in Knoxville, Tennessee, where CEO Tim Murtaugh found success in recent years selling an additive that makes plastic grocery bags biodegradable, and has now adjusted the product to work for straws.
In the last six months, the drive for an alternative became more urgent as he heard from all five of his big fast-food customers. McDonald’s announced last month it would be replacing plastic straws with paper in the U.K. and Ireland by 2019, and would start testing substitutes in the U.S., as well.
Murtaugh says he’s seen a tenfold increase in inquiries for his additive so far this year, including from many larger companies. “We’ve drawn their attention, they’re impressed with our technology, and we are now in what I would call the final phase of conversation about it,’’ he said.
Many plastic substitutes come with their own set of environmental problems, said Murtaugh. Paper straws have more carbon emissions when the entire manufacturing process is considered, and plant-based bioplastics are tricky because they won’t break down if they’re not composted correctly, he said. Reuseable glass straws can be difficult to clean and are significantly more expensive up front.
Nonetheless, those products are also seeing demand surge in the wake of the plastic straw controversy.
The largest U.S. paper straw maker, Aardvark Straws, can’t keep up with the flood of new orders, leaving some customers to wait three months for their orders to be filled.
Eco-Products Inc., which supplies food-service giants such as US Foods Holdings Corp. and Sysco Corp., has seen demand for its compostable straws double in the last six months.
When he was first getting EcoGlass off the ground, Graffius spent years traveling to craft shows and conferences handing out free samples of his glass straws to drum up business. But people still viewed them as a gimmick. “I spent a lot of money and I pretty much got nowhere,” he recalled.
Graffius abandoned his marketing efforts and refocused on making his straws. He imports shatter-resistant glass from Germany and then hand-shapes and polishes it into smooth, dishwasher-safe drinking tubes “almost equal to the silverware that’s in your drawer.’’
He sells his straws direct through his company website and in bulk to a distributor, Foods Alive Inc., based in Angola, Indiana. Foods Alive repackages and sells the straws to several hundred retail stores, juice bars and consumers. The distributor has seen sales jump by 30 percent from last year, and now markets the EcoGlass product to individuals, too, packaged with a carrying case and cleaning brush, said Matt Alvord, one of the company’s founders.
EcoGlass’s phone started ringing more often a couple years ago after the turtle video stirred more awareness about how plastic trash was harming the environment.
A local restaurant, Pelinti Pizza, is among the new customers stocking EcoGlass straws. Owner Gabriel Head says customers have been “overwhelmingly positive,” with many thanking him for providing an option other than plastic.
“People who care, get it,’ he said.
Meanwhile the glassmaker is hearing from new customers every day, ranging from hospitals to hotels, as the plastic backlash accelerates.
“It’s exciting,’’ Graffius said. His business started with a simple, environmentally friendly product that was ahead of its time, “and now everything’s catching up.”
A growing movement against plastic straws is playing out in Chicago, with restaurants and museums banning the items, and a South Side straw factory urgently seeking an environmentally friendly alternative for slurping down a soda or chocolate shake.
The single-use plastic straw — colorful, functional and handed out in bunches — has suddenly shifted from consumer staple to scourge, projected by some critics to foul ecosystems for an eon.
Scores of Chicago-area restaurants have already shunned plastic straws, along with colleges and a number of cultural venues, such as the Shedd Aquarium. This spring, the White Sox became the first Major League Baseball team to ban plastic straws from their stadium.
Elsewhere, municipalities are taking action, with Seattle and Miami among U.S. cities that have restricted plastic straws. New York City is considering a similar ban.
The plastic straw pushback may be good news for environmentalists, but it doesn’t bode well for Best Diamond Plastics, a 10-year-old, minority-owned Chicago manufacturer whose primary business is supplying drinking straws to McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Portillo’s and other restaurant chains.
“It hasn’t really affected our business at this point,” said Mark Tolliver, 64, president of Best Diamond Plastics. “If that gains traction, if we don’t have a solution, then we’re going to have a significant issue.”
Generally not biodegradable or recyclable, hundreds of millions of plastic straws are used in the U.S. every day, ending up in landfills, littering the landscape or floating away. Environmentalists say seafaring straws are ingested by marine animals and are one of the top 10 pieces of garbage polluting the oceans.
At least 8 million tons of plastics leak into the world’s oceans each year, according to a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum. By 2050, there could be more plastic by weight in the world’s oceans than fish, according to the report.
A 2015 University of California at Davis study found plastic debris in a quarter of the fish sold for human consumption.
The tipping point for many was a 2015 YouTube video of marine biologists in Costa Rica removing a plastic straw that had become lodged up a sea turtle’s nose. More than 26 million views later, there has been a major shift in consumer sentiment against the once-heralded innovation.
Marvin Stone is credited with inventing the modern drinking straw, patenting a process in 1888 to wind paper into a tube, according to the Lemelson Center at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. The advent of the plastic straw in the 1960s quickly supplanted the easily collapsed paper straw as the implement of choice in restaurants and other venues.
But the paper straw is back on the table, along with bamboo, metal and other materials, as the food service industry scrambles to find alternatives to plastic.
Chicago-based fast-food giant McDonald’s, one of the world’s largest users of plastic straws, isn’t quite ready to make the change. Shareholders voted down a proposal last month for McDonald’s to issue a report on the business risks of continued use of plastic straws, a call to action that the board considered unnecessary in light of ongoing packaging sustainability efforts.
“As part of our efforts towards this goal, we are working to find a more sustainable solution for plastic straws globally,” McDonald’s spokeswoman Andrea Abate said in an email Monday.
In U.S. markets that have restricted plastic straws, McDonald’s provides compostable straws in some places and straws upon customer request in others, depending on the regulations, Abate said.
She said McDonald’s is looking to have its straws come from renewable, recycled or certified sources by 2025.
McDonald’s straw supplier Best Diamond Plastics operates a 73,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in the Calumet Business Center in the Pullman community area on Chicago’s Far South Side. It has 76 employees, a big-name customer base and a major threat to its business model, said Tolliver, the company’s president.
“It would be a very negative situation for our company if the large quick-service restaurants decided they were no longer going to use plastic straws,” he said.
Tolliver, who grew up on the South Side, launched the company in 2008. While he has yet to lose any business as a result of the plastic straw pushback, he is facing growing concern among his customers.
“I haven’t had anyone call me up and say, ‘That’s my last order,’” Tolliver said. “But they are calling me up and saying, ‘We need to address this issue; this is something we are concerned about and we are looking for solutions.’”
Best Diamond is working with Smart Plastic Technologies, an 8-year-old Knoxville, Tenn., company with a north suburban Wheeling facility that produces an additive to make plastic biodegradable.
Approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the bioassimilation additive will make a plastic straw biodegrade within 18 months, said Tim Murtaugh, CEO of Smart Plastic.
“It causes plastic to biodegrade like paper,” Murtaugh said. “The stuff works.”
The additive, a manganese-based formulation, adds less than a half-penny on the dollar to the production cost, he said. Smart Plastic is working with “numerous supermarket chains” that use the additive in their plastic grocery bags to make them fully biodegradable.
Best Diamond has yet to use the additive, but is floating the idea with customers.
“We’ve already been talking to our customers about it,” Tolliver said. “They’re pretty interested in it.”
Many Chicago-area venues have already ditched plastic straws. Last year, the Shedd Aquarium launched a campaign to limit plastic straw use called #SheddTheStraw, which has gathered momentum and now includes more than 100 Chicago restaurants.
Inspired by a Shedd ballpark promotion, the White Sox decided to eliminate plastic straws in April, switching to paper straws at Guaranteed Rate Field. The team and its partners project the move will keep more than 215,000 plastic straws from being used this season.
“It seemed like a really good idea,” White Sox spokesman Scott Reifert said. “We took the plunge and we’ve gotten nothing but compliments from people.”
Reifert said the team switched to bottled soda several years ago, making some straws unnecessary and the transition a little easier. The ballpark serves only one beverage with a plastic straw — the Frozen Yard, which comes in a tall plastic glass.
“They haven’t yet found a paper straw that’s long enough,” Reifert said.
Bon Appetit, a California-based food service company, announced late last month that it was phasing out plastic straws at all 1,000 of its client cafes in 33 states, including sites at the University of Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago and west suburban Wheaton College.
The company plans to use up its existing supply of plastic straws while it secures a national distributor to supply paper straws to all of its locations. The changeover is projected to be completed by 2019.
“Certainly the worst thing to do would be to just throw away the plastic straws,” said Maisie Ganzler, chief strategy officer for Bon Appetit.
Plastic straw proponents remain. Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, an 85-year-old industry trade association, touted sanitary and convenience benefits, while warning against laws restricting their use.
“Food service operators and their customers should be able to decide whether or not they want to offer (or) use a straw,” Dyer said in an email. “Government — at any level — should not limit operator or consumer choice by banning these items.”
Scott DeFife, vice president of government affairs for the Plastics Industry Association, likewise argued against banning straws in response to environmental concerns.
“Straws don’t have a place in the marine environment,” DeFife said in an email. “However, the focus shouldn’t be on banning straws. Instead, we advocate for educating people about proper disposal and creating better infrastructure to modernize recycling. Our industry is full of ingenuity and innovation and wants to be a part of the solution.”
For Best Diamond Plastics, the straw solution needs to include some form of its namesake product, and time may be running out.
“We’re fighting an uphill battle,” Tolliver said. “We recognize that.”