The Paper Straw Pioneers

A mason jar full of multicolored paper straws
Aardvark Paper Straws

Tony Valainis

Sales at Fort Wayne paper-straw manufacturer Aardvark are skyrocketing amid a perfect storm of social media outrage, consumer demand, and legislative action against the ubiquitous plastic straw. Between August 2018 and February 2019, the company’s employee count grew 700 percent, and a sales team of one expanded to 50 people pushing its patterned, logoed, and bendy straws. Company reps were tight-lipped about exact sales numbers, but later this year, Aardvark will move down the road to a modernized 110,000-square-foot facility to meet the new demand.

The current U.S. market for sucking plastic is huge, to the tune of $1 billion in straw sales in 2018. Aardvark produces the only American-made, marine-degradable, compostable paper straws using FDA-compliant, food-grade materials—and that combination is hot.

Ohio native Marvin Stone patented his first paper-straw design in 1888, but plastics have dominated the market since their introduction in the 1960s. His company evolved into Aardvark, a subsidiary of Fort Wayne–based Precision Products Group, when, in 2007, Ted Turner’s Montana Grill approached PPG asking for an alternative to plastic straws. Aardvark answered by experimenting with different papers, adhesives, and winding methods to achieve maximum durability and cuteness. Other buyers followed.

A bigger break came four years ago, when a heartbreakingly cringey viral video made the social media rounds starring a sea turtle and rescuers extracting a plastic straw from its nostril. In response, an 11-year-old launched the #NoStrawChallenge, and consumers’ disdain for the single-use tube took off. The turtle video is now at 34 million views.

By the beginning of 2018, Aardvark was racing to keep up its supply, and sought an investor to better prepare for the forecasted demand. Hoffmaster Group, Inc., a disposable-paper-goods company in Wisconsin, acquired Aardvark in August 2018. The House of Blues and Sandals Resorts became clients.

So was it some ingenious public-relations move by bigwigs at Hoffmaster that has pushed the needle so hard and fast?

“I would love to say we are that good, but no, it has been an actual movement,” says Andy Romjue, president of Hoffmaster Group, Inc. “Over the last two years, there has been a huge acceleration in the demand for a paper version, for a variety of reasons.”

For the most part, public outcry around the environmental impact of single-use plastic on the earth is the driver. It’s estimated that 8 million tons of plastic flows into the ocean every year. Legislatures in cities including Malibu, Charleston, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., have responded by outlawing plastic straws , as have major corporations, airlines, and food-service providers. No word yet on when Fort Wayne and Indy will jump on the ban wagon, but Starbucks is going plastic-free starting next year.