The Last Straw

Photo courtesy of Molly Tavoletti

Straws that don’t harm the environment, but benefit it.

Written by Sylvia Dean

The move away from single-use plastic has picked up some momentum over the last couple years, but the alternatives aren’t as sustainable or as functional as everyone had hoped. We can all agree that plastic straws suck. But we can also agree that paper straws, though created with good intentions, also suck. Maybe even worse. Not only do they dissolve into your drink, but they also aren’t even that much better for the environment than the plastic ones. The good news is, the fine fellas over at eightysix straws have found an alternative to both plastic and paper straws. The even better news is, these straws actually work and are beneficial for the environment in more ways than one. So much so, they even benefit turtles and coral reefs. Pretty much the polar opposite of plastic straws, but still just convenient for sipping on a drink.

Where it all began

The restaurant and bar industry are quite the suckers of single-use plastic. Especially after the world jumped into a volcano and the majority of the industry had to revert back to single-use everything. Plates, cutlery, cups, straws, you name it. To put it into perspective, nearly half a billion single-use plastic straws are used in the United States every day. Every day. Makes you think twice about putting two cocktail straws in your vodka soda. With over ten years of New York City hospitality under his belt, founder Aleksey Reznikov came across alternatives to plastic straws early on. Problem was they weren’t actually sustainable and didn’t function. This led him on a mission—bartending almost five nights a week, he knew it would need to be something that worked and something that wasn’t harming the environment behind the scenes. A straw that can do both.

Photo courtesy of Molly Tavoletti | @mollytavoletti 

After finding a green alternative to the plastic straw, Aleksey rang up his friend Anton Briones to bring his background in marketing and fashion to boost this step in the right direction. “Shaming people into leading a sustainable lifestyle clearly doesn’t work, so we would like to take a more fun and inclusive approach.” Instead of trying to make you feel shitty for not living sustainably, they worked to create a brand and a company that keeps it cool, making it fun through events and activities. Gotta keep it exciting. Next thing on the list was to have someone handle their paperwork. Not so exciting. That’s where James Brooks comes in. As a sailor, single-use plastic was something he was looking to nix too. He’s seen way too much of it floating around out at sea and was onboard to help make a difference. This is where the roots to literally eighty-six (restaurant slang for “yer outta here, buddy”) straws began. They saw the issue and worked toward solutions. They knew they could provide an answer to single-use plastic with a new and fashionable approach for sustainability. 

Nearly half a billion single-use plastic straws are used in the United States every day.

The mission to eighty-six single-use plastic

For those who have never worked in the service industry, you may not be familiar with the term “eighty-six.” The term has been around for almost 100 years now and has quite the history, with some stories placing its origin in the Prohibition era. Just around the corner from the Whalebone Shop on Bleecker once stood a classic bar named Chumley’s. It had served as a legit speakeasy during Prohibition. The legend goes, an informant at the police station used to call the bar and give the code “eighty-six,” which let the illegally drunk attendees know it was time to exit out of the back door onto Barrow Street for a safe stumble of an escape from the police. Flash forward to present day, it is still commonly used in restaurants and bars. And if you are too familiar with it and you aren’t a bartender, you may want to watch your manners, since it usually means a disorderly patron is getting the boot. 

Paper straws were a good attempt, but they seem to have had an adverse effect on peoples’ opinion of transitioning to more sustainable options. Making sustainability seem like something that was unachievable, some people’s first thought after trying to drink through a mushy paper straw became, “This whole sustainability thing is bullshit.” Yes, paper is better than plastic, but not if your straw dissolves in your drink and the manufacturers are misleading consumers on what they are actually selling. Made with paper, yes, but also made with a ton of bioplastics that are mixed in with the paper, not to mention you probably shouldn’t be consuming whatever is in the glue used to hold the spiraled paper together. Paper straws aren’t functional and they actually aren’t quite so sustainable. Just like plastic straws, paper straws are produced in a factory, releasing tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and it doesn’t even provide you with a straw that lasts in your drink long enough to finish it. Lots of people were on board with this initial alternative to plastic straws, but once they proved to suck metaphorically more and literally less than plastic, sustainable sucking hit an air bubble.

Instead of going the next route and trying to force the stainless steel, use-a-pipe-cleaner-type deal, Aleksey and Anton found materials that are disposable but not harmful to the environment in any step of production. Sustainability comes second in most industries. Yes—it is thought about, which is a step in the right direction, but if the product is sustainable but not up to standard, the better product functionally is what will be purchased. Knowing this, they knew that this new straw alternative was going to prove itself functionally before it even proved itself sustainably. 

Growing the solution

The answer to the plastic straw problem has been growing on the earth’s surface this entire time. As Aleksey and Anton described it, “It is literally grass,” and it grows all over the world from the wetlands of Southeast Asia to the swamps of Florida to places in Africa. So it’s diverse and abundant.

The big grass with a hole in it, like any other grass, grows directly out of the ground in the exact shape you get when you open a package of eightysix straws. These grasses grow six feet every year and are extremely beneficial to the environment. They provide habitat for native species, keep the wetlands wetlands, emit immense amounts of oxygen, and biodegrade in 42 days. And because they are plants, if you wanted to throw it into your backyard or into the ocean, it will actually benefit that environment as well. In your backyard it will act as a natural fertilizer or a snack to something that gets to it first. In the ocean it helps fertilize coral reefs and if a turtle comes across it, it’s just like eating seaweed. Something turtles naturally consume, unlike plastic. But the sustainability of these straws is not limited to the product itself. The harvesting, manufacturing and production processes of this grass are just as sustainable as drinking through grass.

Aleksey and Anton made it a point to really get to know the people and culture of where these grasses were coming from. So, instead of just outsourcing manufacturing to China, they chose a smaller, more local approach, wanting to learn the entire process of producing these straws from start to finish to ensure there weren’t any malpractices occurring while on opposite sides of the globe. They knew it would be so much more personable to stand on common ground.

Once in Southeast Asia, they went to the local farms to experience the product firsthand. The farmers cut a blade of grass and popped them into small coconuts so Aleksey and Anton could try out Mother Nature’s prototype. Fresh from the ground, it worked way better than a paper straw ever could. 

Looking someone in the eye and shaking their hand makes you connect more. I don’t think language is a barrier for creating good relationships

Not only was the sustainability of production addressed but also the conditions the farmers worked in, the fairness of their wages, if this whole process is actually benefiting them and their economy, if this is helping small businesses and farmers, the list goes on. The good news is after the team visited Southeast Asia and got to know the farmers and manufacturers, all these questions answered yes. And the benefits didn’t even stop there. The grasses are harvested and farmed regeneratively, the only step in the manufacturing process is dehydrating the grass for a longer shelf life. The grass grows where it should. It is not planted in fields where native plant species have been cleared from. It grows exactly where it would naturally and unlike cutting down a tree and it taking years to regrow a single trunk, they are individual blades of grass that grow six feet in a single year. Quite a lot of straws can be made out of a single six-foot blade. And think how many blades of grass are out there. 

Anton + Aleksey

Once they had this experience in Southeast Asia, they knew this was the answer to single-use plastic straws. Not only are they sustainable, but they are also functional, absorbing liquid from your drink becoming flexible and durable. Exactly the answer they were looking for. The next step is to get them to locations around the city and our stomping grounds on the East End, where they introduced eightysix straws to early adopters at Ruschmyer’s and The Garret Bars to the fine folks that jumped in on the good at Shinola Hotel Detroit, The Crown, Employees Only and many more.

Eightysix for good

This seemed like the holy grail: A sustainable straw that works, yes, but also a sustainable straw that has extensive benefits from start to finish for the environment. But that’s not where Aleksey and Anton stopped. Knowing they could gain momentum and create a positive impact, they knew they could do more than provide a plastic straw replacement. 

The two partners find giving back one of the most important parts of being in business, resulting in the creation of their charity; eightysix for good Through this they host events, street clean ups, and partner with nonprofit Lonely Whale—one of the leading organizations in cleaning oceans on a global scale—donating a portion of every straw sale to ensure ocean stabilization.

A perfect cycle of life. It’s good for the earth from start to finish. Why would we still use plastic if we have this.

Having jumped the hurdle of getting people on board for sustainable changes without the taste of soggy paper in their mouths, the team set out to now make it fun. And what better way than to throw a party, especially with the event expertise of Anton and Aleksey. Their first big throwdown was an Art Basel pop-up in Miami at the Blind Barber inside the Arlo Hotel, where they showcased the work of Brooklyn-based artist Rachid Kallamni, who they commissioned to use plastic straws they personally gathered from venues throughout New York in his art. These restaurants, bars and venues pledged to eighty-six single-use plastic, allowing the two partners to take all of the plastic straw inventory they found and replace them with eightysix straws. With the plastic straws they gathered, Rachid’s artwork symbolizes how we live in a labyrinth of plastic but there are better alternatives to be found.

They auctioned off the artwork and donated all of the proceeds back to Lonely Whale. Full circle, just like the straws. Not to mention they also held an event that was sponsored by Diplo and Bacardi so you can only imagine the time had. We may have to have them plan our next Whalebone party. 

When the dumpster-fire of a year started its downward spiral and Australia caught on fire, eightysix for good immediately pivoted their holiday party to benefit the Australian Red Cross, raising over 4,000 dollars. Once the world shut down on a grander scale, eightysix for good started partnering with community organizations to (literally) take plastics out of the streets.

Finding it important to stay connected with people, Aleksey and Anton would be at every street clean up they held, on their hands and knees in the streets of Harlem, The Bronx, and Brooklyn picking up trash from the streets and handing out eightysix straws in partnership with sustainability pioneer Giada Lubomirski. Not to mention they picked trash up from the infamous Joker stairs.

There is no other straw alternative found yet that is quite as good for the planet as this one. Not just better than plastic and paper, but monumentally better from start to finish. Throw your eightysix straw on the ground, it will have a positive impact. Throw your eightysix straw in the ocean, it will have a positive impact. Take a deep breath and remember eightysix straws are contributing to global oxygen output when they are growing in the wetlands. Nature has an answer for everything, and we should’ve looked there first. Pledge to eightysix single-use plastic in your life. It’s as simple as sipping through grass.