The plastic straw banning trend throughout the U.S. has been good news for Lauren Gropper, CEO and co-founder of Repurpose, Inc.
“It was fortuitous timing,” says Gropper. “We’re often ahead of the market trends, which can make it hard to get traction. So this was just timing in our favor.”
Gropper, along with co-founder Corey Scholibo and founding partners Jordan Silverman and Brian Chung, runs Repurpose, Inc., a company that makes compostable tableware made exclusively from plant materials. Unlike plastic options, the offerings from Repurpose can be composted in an industrial-strength composter in about six months. If not composted, they’ll eventually break down in a landfill to just carbon dioxide and water. No toxins will leak into the ground and groundwater and no harmful materials are released during the decomposition process.
Gropper, an architect by education, spent the early years of her career as a green consultant for sustainable design projects. Through that work, she eventually started acting as a sustainability consultant on film and TV shows in L.A., including “Entourage” and programs for the Travel Channel and HGTV. It’s on those sets that she realized how much plastic use occurred on a daily basis and that the problem was getting worse, not better. In 2009, she met Brian Chung — who would later become a founding partner of Repurpose — and learned that he had a family member in Taiwan who was already creating materials out of plant-based products. “I thought, ‘Why isn’t the world switching to this material? Why are we taking petroleum out of the earth to create a disposable product?’” says Gropper. “It didn’t make any sense to me.”
Inspired by that technology, Gropper and her team formed Repurpose in 2010. Their first products, insulated coffee cups and lids, were introduced in 2011 and intended to be an alternative to a paper coffee cup for consumers who take their coffee on the road while commuting. According to Gropper, Repurpose operates based on a simple concept. “We take a look at products on the market,” she says, “and try to create a better solution that’s compostable.”
That was the case with Repurpose’s compostable, bendable straws, which had actually been in development for more than a year before companies like Starbucks and Disney announced the phasing-out of single-use straws at their locations in July. Unlike paper straws, which can lose their integrity and start to disintegrate during use, Repurpose’s compostable straws work with both hot and cold liquids, like a plastic straw. They also don’t use the chemical adhesives used to seal paper straws, which helps contribute to their totally clean and organic breakdown.
Though a straw seems like a simple product, Gropper’s team went through no less than six iterations of prototypes before finalizing the current version. That including testing various organic blends — they eventually landed on a corn-based material — to find a mix that would be relaxed enough to allow for a bend in the straw while still providing a superior user experience by not deteriorating or losing strength during use.
Gropper admits that some products have taken longer to gain traction, as most are usually not the hot-button issues plastic single-use straws have been since the bans began. However, since launching in May, they’ve sold more than 3,000 cases of straws. Each case contains 20 boxes of 50 straws each, which means they’ve sold 60,000 boxes of straws in the four months they’ve actively been in market. It was their fastest product rollout ever, selling four times as much inventory than any of their other products did in the same initial time frame. Gropper credits that success to the raised consumer awareness about the environmental impact of plastic straws. “Every piece of plastic we ever used in our lifetime is still on this earth,” she says, “and people are starting to realize that.” While they usually have a challenge with educating consumers about the reasons for choosing compostable products, Gropper says that the straw bans have sped up the consumer adoption process of non-plastic alternatives.
A box of 50 straws has a suggested retail price of $2.79, which is usually within 50 cents of other premium disposable products found in stores. Though Repurpose does have some food-service accounts, it only accounts for about a very small percent of their business. Gropper estimates their business is about 90 percent consumer; a decision that’s very intentional. “We want to be in the space no one is tackling,” she says. By having price parity with similar products and engaging in mainstream social media and consumer advertising plans, they’re aiming to reach consumers throwing backyard barbeques or taking drinks on-the-go.
Of course, the straw bans haven’t been without their criticisms; mainly, that they don’t go far enough and that while plastics are a huge environmental burden — a plastic bottle on average takes 400 years to decompose — banning straws won’t have an impact on the issue. To a degree, Gropper sees understands that point. “I would somewhat agree with that. Why is it okay to use a plastic cup and not a plastic straw? But it’s an easy way to highlight a bigger issue and not so much a band-aid as a step in the right direction,” she says. “It’s a first step. I hope it’s a first step.”