By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – Plastic straws suck … and in more ways than their intended use.
In the last year, straws have quickly risen to the top of the list of plastic products polluting oceans because they are single use, aren’t typically recycled, and are thrown away by the millions each day, much of which ends up in the ocean. This realization prompted major corporations and cities to begin banning the use of single use plastic straws. Starbucks has promised to end the use of plastic straws at all of its locations by next year. Airlines and hospitality corporations are already limiting their use or replacing them altogether.
On Jan. 1, California began restricting the use of straws by making customers ask for them at full service restaurants, but does not regulate their use at convenience stores and grocery stores. California is one of three states with pending legislation to ban the use of plastic straws. The cities of Alameda, Carmel, San Luis Obispo, Davis, Malibu, Manhattan Beach, Oakland, Richmond, Berkeley, and Monterey have banned the use of plastic straws and San Francisco’s ban is set to take effect in July. Cities in four other states have banned plastic straws as well.
As the national conversation on straws began to make the country pucker, Rob Reeves, president of Kaweah Container in Visalia, began thinking of the viability of straws made from a material that is more recyclable and cleaner to manufacture – paper.
“The public perception of plastic straws was changing and we buy a lot of paper,” Reeves said. “Oregon and California are banning single use plastic straws but I don’t think people want to stop using straws. It was certainly something to look into.”
Reeves said Kaweah Container began investigating what it would take to build “a better mousetrap” when it came to paper straws last June. The manufacturing equipment arrived in late October. Between November and January, Kaweah Container did extensive research and development to identify materials that were FDA compliant but could still provide a straw that was sturdier and safer for human consumption.
Erin Jennings, vice president of operations, said Kaweah Container began shipping orders under the name KC (Kaweah Container) Straws in February with Sequoia Brewing Company in Fresno became KC Straws’ first customer. The Visalia Rawhide have been using the straws since they opened their season on April 4.
“We are now their sole supplier for straws,” Jennings said. “And they love them.”
Jennings said KC Straws don’t turn to mush in the drink similar to traditional straws of the past, making them 100% recyclable and 100% reliable.
The most shocking part of the KC Straws endeavor for Reeves was the lack of regulations on straws. Despite a straw’s entire purpose and use being direct contact with liquids for human consumption, Reeves said there are no regulations on the materials that can be used to make plastic or paper straws.
Jennings said once Kaweah Container discovered there were no regulations requiring straws to be FDA compliant, she said the company decided they wanted to set the standard for others to follow.
“You can make [straws] out of anything and most come from China,” Jennings said. “China doesn’t even regulate how its paper products are made at all. All of the materials we use are FDA compliant, including the paper and the ink.”
About 99% of single use straws in the U.S. are plastic.
Most straws contain polystyrene, a chemical that contributes to Styrofoam not being biodegradable. Plastic straws made in China also include heavy metals contaminants in the plastic and ink. Reeves said there is also an accepted amount of human waste involved in China’s paper making processes. This also includes other paper products made in China, including generic pizza boxes.
“If most people realized what they were putting in their mouths they wouldn’t do it,” Reeves said. “We wanted a straw that’s better than 99% of what’s out there.”
KC Straws may also benefit from new tariffs recently passed by the Trump Administration. Plastic and paper products, including straws, are among $250 billion in Chinese goods the U.S. has taxed with a 25% tariff.
Reeves said he’s not sure tariffs will be a factor in the success of paper straws but he wants restaurant owners to know there is an alternative to plastic straws that meet a high standard of quality being made in America.
“We want restaurant and entertainment venue owners to know that our straws were made in America,” Reeves said. “Our goal was to make a straw that is better than the one out there.”
A STIRRING OPPORTUNITY
Kaweah Container has been in the paper product business for decades. Reeves said Wileman Bros. & Elliott, a fourth generation farming company, launched the business in 1989 to compliment its farming operations in Cutler, Calif. As the name suggests, the company started making corrugated boxes for agriculture packing and shipping. Today, agriculture only represents 15% of the business as Kaweah Container has evolved to make boxes for nearly every aspect of the food industry, from cereal boxes to frozen food packaging, at its two manufacturing plants in Visalia totaling more than 400,000 square feet. The company also owns two distribution centers in Ontario, Calif. and Stockton, Calif.
Reg Phillips, digital print manager for Kaweah Container, said one of the biggest reasons Kaweah Container became the largest corrugated box supplier on the West Coast is due to the graphics it can custom print on the side of any box. Three years ago Kaweah Container invested in a special HP printer that can essentially print any type of graphics onto any of its paper made products.
“We’ve taken the printer well beyond what it was designed for,” Phillips said.
Kaweah Container is just one of three companies in the United States manufacturing paper straws and the only one in California. Straws provided a new canvas for Kaweah Container’s hi tech printer.
“As far as we know, were are the only plant in the world doing this [level of printing] on straws,” Phillips said.
Most plastic straws come in clear, white, but can be died for color. The only pattern printed onto most straws are strips, Phillips said. Due to the consistency and materials used, Phillips said there are a lot of limitations with printing on plastic straws, non of which apply to paper straws, as long as you have the right equipment. Phillips said they can print any colors, patterns, or logos on the straws creating a new frontier in branding opportunities for companies.
“Branding is an entirely new opportunity in the straw area,” Phillips said. “I think businesses will catch on.”