AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Paper straws might be a hard sell for boba tea shops, but the sudden demand for them is only increasing as plastic straw bans multiply. Manufacturers of paper straws like Aardvark Straws in Fort Wayne, Ind., say their business is blowing up these days.
David Rhodes is the global director for Aardvark Straws, and he's here to talk about it. Hey, David.
DAVID RHODES: Hi there, Ailsa.
CHANG: So you guys sell only paper straws, absolutely no plastic ones.
RHODES: No, we only do paper straws. And our heritage actually goes back to 1888. And then of course paper straws were around up until the early '60s. And then plastic came along. And then paper straws left the planet for about three decades. Ten years ago, we brought them back better, not like the old paper straws that used to get soggy and fall apart back in the '60s and '70s. And so we've just seen this phenomenal increase over the last 10 years to - whereby literally our business was doubling every year, which is phenomenal by itself. The situation we face today is everybody wants them now immediately. And that's caused our lead times to increase out beyond what most people are comfortable with.
CHANG: Yeah, so what has that been like?
RHODES: We're adding capacity just as fast as anybody can. And what people don't remember is back in the '60s and the '70s when it was all paper, it took the plastics industry almost a decade to get rid of paper. Now, it will not take us or anybody else a decade, but it's going to take a little bit of time.
CHANG: Do you actually see a reality into the future where everyone is using only paper straws? Is that feasible?
RHODES: You know, there's a couple of exceptions. But for the most part, you know, the quality, safe Aardvark straw that we make is a one-to-one substitute for the plastic straw. And it's clearly - you know, it's better for the environment. And there's no reason why that shouldn't happen, you know, a few years down the road.
CHANG: Well, business owners say that paper straws are a lot more expensive than plastic straws, so it hurts their bottom line. They might order fewer straws. I mean, do you see that as a problem - the cost of these paper straws?
RHODES: So there is no getting around that a paper straw is going to cost about a penny more than a plastic straw. It's not 5 cent, it's not 10 cent more like you see in a lot of publications. It's about a penny more when you compare apples to apples. One thing that we promote heavily and have since day one is straws on demand or straws on request. So by reducing the amount of straws that are served and cutting that consumption in half, the net now for an operator can be zero to where they're serving half the amount of straws they were in the past. Yes, they cost a penny more. But at the end of the day, it's really not costing the operator any more.
CHANG: Well, you know, one thing that we just heard in the piece before this, boba tea shops - they say that paper straws just don't work for their product. What would you say to those boba tea shops?
RHODES: I would say they probably haven't tried an Aardvark straw. We are the only made in America. We're the original straws. Unfortunately when we brought back the modern-day paper straw 10 years ago, about seven years ago there were copycats coming, you know, from the Asian market. And those straws do get soggy. They fall apart. And they don't work very well.
CHANG: So there are these copycat companies in China. Is that why you have a closed factory policy? Are you afraid of Chinese companies trying to steal your trade secrets?
RHODES: You know, it is. It's unfortunate that we do have to have a closed policy. But the materials that we use and the way that we make an Aardvark straw is very much proprietary. And if that got out to the general public, then obviously we would not have our competitive advantage.
CHANG: I have a confession to make that the bias I have against paper straws is when I'm at a table and I don't see a toothpick handy, I will use the straw in my drink to pick my teeth with. I can't do that with a paper straw. Are you going to promise me that your straws will be tough enough so I can pick my teeth with them?
CHANG: That's essential.
RHODES: You know, some things you just can't do. So, you know, a paper straw will perform for what it's used for, and that is to pull liquid out of a drink and into your mouth safely.
CHANG: David Rhodes is global director for Aardvark Straws. It's a maker of paper straws in Fort Wayne, Ind. Thank you very much for joining us.
RHODES: Well, thank you for what you guys do. Have a great day.
CHANG: All right, we have a late development to report now. Since recording our conversation with David Rhodes earlier today, we have learned that some of those boba tea shops in San Francisco are in fact using Aardvark Straws. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.