Natalie Stephens was, like millions of others, watching Blue Planet last year, both astonished and shocked at what she saw. Unlike the majority of viewers, however, she decided to do something. Less than a year later The Paper Straw Group is up and running alongside the Optichrome group in Woking where Stephens is chief executive.
“I wanted to do something positive for the environment,” she says. “I go down to the beach in Cornwall and can see the damage plastic is doing to the environment.”
At the same time in north London, Anna Clifton, wife of Tim Clifton, was touched by the same programme. “She said ‘You should do paper straws’,” her husband says. The London Straw Company is the result, running as part of the Cliftons trade finishing business. “Turnover in print finishing has been static for three years, so we needed to do something, initially as a bolt on, to grow the business and had looked at different options before paper straws.”
Neither has looked back on the decision. It has meant trips to China to visit the supplier of the machinery to print, slit, wind, cut and pack the straws. It has meant frustrations in getting them to run smoothly and to research the adhesives that can be used to comply with EU legislation. Straws coming in from China do not comply in this way and the inks used for the candy stripes would not be considered food safe if printed inside the EU. The glue supplier from Germany cannot supply the glue used in China to European manufacturers. On top of this there is the carbon footprint associated with shipping a product that includes, by its nature, a lot of air half way around the world.
For Stephens there was the additional need to ensure that the components were free from animal products “and we have been doing a lot of research to ensure that the straws are as strong as possible. It has been the perfect time for us to invest. We can bring a lot of experience in working with paper and print.”
Clifton concurs. Getting the machines to run smoothly in cold weather with limited humidity and maximum static is a challenge. At least one other start up in making paper straws has given up after failing to get the technology to work properly.
The two that are only now getting into full production are taking different approaches to the market. The London Straw Company has set up an ecommerce website to sell small quantities directly to independent pubs, bars or cafés. However, the bulk of orders have come directly from the hospitality trade or wholesalers and it has shipped pallets of candy stripe straws to countries in Europe and as far afield as the US. It has taken inspiration from the London Underground to identify the different colours used in the product.
Stephens says that The Paper Straw Group is taking a different tack, looking to brand its straws for events from corporate launches to weddings and parties. It has already produced straws for the Evening Standard, she says. “We are working with Surrey County Council on the Surrey Straw Switch, supplying 50 paper straws to every business that signs up to move away from plastic,” she says. “We want to be the preferred supplier of personalised paper straws.”
It has meant setting up road shows in towns across the county to meet smaller businesses and get the message across. “Lots of pubs and restaurants are moving to paper straws,” she says. There is a potential spin off for the printing company as those businesses will also be buying marketing material. “It is opening new doors for us. We are really excited about it.”
Likewise in Walthamstow The London Straw Company has taken off in ways that were not anticipated. “We get just as excited about a 2,000 order for straws as we do about a £25,000 perfect binding job,” says Clifton. “It is the excitement of seeing a company build up.”
It has been attracting more international business than planned. “We were also expecting to do most business through the e-commerce site where we would receive payment up front, but we are dealing with wholesalers who like print customers want credit terms,” he says.
“We attended the International Food & Drink event and it was nice to chat to people who are not involved in print.”
Now Clifton is looking for additional factory space, probably beyond the M25 to meet demand. Later there are possibilities on the east coast of the US. “We are now looking at employment legislation in the States and hope to be opening before the end of the year,” he says. What may have started as a straw in the wind venture, has proved to be smart thinking.
By Gareth Ward
Natalie Stephens is targeting events and promotional activities with bespoke and short run straws that can be branded to a customer. While Tim Clifton began looking at London's hospitality sector, but has found demand stretching across Europe.