// 06.16.2020

introducing everlyn liu from straw by straw.

Plastic’s devastating impact on the ocean is clear. 800 species worldwide are affected by ocean rubbish. 80% of that debris is plastic. 13 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year. By 2050, it’s estimated that 99% of seabirds will have eaten plastic and by the same date, unless serious action is taken, the weight of plastic in the ocean will be greater than the weight of fish. Whilst facts like these have helped widespread awareness and measures are being taken to slow the use of plastics, there’s still an uncountable amount of work to be done.

Innovative, purpose-driven businesses are leading this charge and amongst them is sustainable straw company, Straw by Straw. Made from 100% wheat straw taken from agricultural waste, they’re making products that don’t compromise on quality despite their green label. And the startup is committed to making truly sustainable straws – no additional processes are needed for them to biodegrade back into the earth. Aside from striving to make the most earth-friendly products, Straw by Straw is dedicated to creating genuine action around the issues they believe in.

We talked to founder Everlyn Liu about how diving prompted her to start a company, why sustainable terms aren’t always truthful and the difficulties in balancing purpose and commerce.

How did diving lead to starting a business?

I had my first diving experience in Thailand and spent two weeks with a group of divers. Almost everyone was environmentally conscious, and I learned a lot by listening to their frustrations about what they found in the sea. Listening to their stories made me question my impact on the environment as well as the Netherlands’.

So, I started researching. I began to understand the importance of protecting this beautiful, vulnerable ocean world. It’s such a special experience to see the underwater world and for me, there’s not much that compares. I don’t know how to describe it; you have to feel it. Diving was the start of knowing I had to protect the ocean.

Straw by Straw is one of the first members of Studio Connect, an initiative that combines a workplace for startups with the tools, support and expertise needed to adapt and grow. How has Studio Connect helped you navigate these difficult times?

Studio Connect has given us an invaluable space to test, learn and pivot our ideas. We had planned to launch Super-Market next year as a marketplace for sustainable products, but Studio Connect gave us the chance to test our hypothesis faster and more efficiently, which has resulted in the platform being rolled out earlier as part of our response to coronavirus.

Straw by Straw takes agricultural waste and creates capital from that. It’s part of the circular economy. How can businesses be encouraged to implement circular thinking?

The best way to encourage businesses to think more circular is by showing the value of waste, and that comes from other businesses leading the way. We’re taught that waste doesn’t have value, it’s something you can just throw away. But once people see that waste can be a source for new ideas, opportunities and revenue, more people will value it correctly.

This can only happen if the processes that create value from waste are efficient and if there are good business models attached. Many companies start circular thinking because of a purpose (which is good), but we have to also show that it can work in the long-term through being profitable. Luckily, it can be.

And why straws?

Straws are a small but perfect entrance into sustainability. Every day, we use millions of straws. They’re everywhere, so I saw it not only as a good business opportunity but a chance to start conversations about plastic pollution that everyone can relate to.

Your website mentions that your straws don’t compromise. Why is this important for sustainable products?

If you want to create positive change, there’ll always be those who will support you; activists, NGOs, environmentalists etc. But they aren’t the people you need to convince. I believe the real change happens by connecting with mainstream audiences, and if you want change to happen there, it has to come as easily as possible with as few compromises as possible.

Biodegradable straws are everywhere, but that term is sometimes misleading. Could you talk about how green terms such as ‘biodegradable’ don’t always tell the whole truth?

I get frustrated about products that call themselves eco-friendly when in reality they’re not. PLA plastics that are often used and sold as biodegradable are to some extent, but producers and sellers of PLA should better inform consumers about the material. They are eco-friendlier than other plastics because no crude oil is processed in the material, but they need special, controlled conditions to degrade. There’s a spectrum of biodegradable plastics and too often companies use green terms to improve their brand image without telling us everything.

Are you ever disheartened by the increasing use of plastic around the world?

It doesn’t dishearten me. If anything, it motivates me to do better. In some parts of the world plastics aren’t a priority – people are focused on surviving, and who can blame them. But here in the EU, people are becoming more conscious about the impact of plastics and there are even new laws that prohibit single-use plastics coming into action next year. There’s real change happening on a political, systematic and psychological level, so I’m optimistic.

What are the biggest challenges to implementing sustainable practices on an industry-wide level?

Infrastructure, innovation and scalability. The first step to tackle these challenges is to make people aware of the problem, and I think we’ve reached that goal in recent years. Now, it’s time to innovate and create the right infrastructure to implement sustainable practices across industries. Companies need to collaborate instead of compete, and I think that’s critical to making sustainable infrastructure accessible as well as enabling scalability.

What have you found hardest in starting your own business?

The hardest thing for me was finding the balance between purpose and commerce. I started the business out of a purpose and I still believe that with the right purpose the money will follow. But at some point, you also have to make decisions based on the business as a for-profit system. That can be a dilemma sometimes. To have a sustainable business in the long-term, your business model has to be strong and you need to have a growth mindset throughout the organization.

At other times, you need to work on your purpose. Not by simply stating your beliefs, using hashtags and quoting green mottos, but by creating real action. A core part of Straw by Straw is the events we organise that bring attention to sustainability; documentaries, talks, discussions and clean-up events. Those activities are vital if you want to fulfil your purpose, but it can be time-consuming. And as a startup, you don’t always have the resources to focus on both in the way you want, and that’s been a learning process for me.

What’s next for Straw by Straw?

Expand, connect and grow, which is why we’re at B. Amsterdam. And we hope to increase our impact by collaborating with other companies, which in a building and community like this, I think we'll find.


Next read: introducing diederik jonkers from cantor circular.