When Huntington entrepreneur Cindy Schiff first told people about her product, they laughed.
Back in 2012 when she would describe the reusable silicone drinking straw she had designed and patented, people “would just look at me like I had lost my mind,” she said.
Fast-forward to 2018. Now it’s Schiff who’s having the proverbial last laugh.
Sales of the colorful straws, sold online through her company GreenPaxx, have increased steadily since year one, but have tripled in the last 12 months, she said. In 2013 GreenPaxx sold 10,000 boxes of four straws each, at $10.95 a pop. Last year Schiff sold more than 70,000 boxes, including some to retail accounts.
She attributes the growth to increasing awareness of the environmental consequences of single-use plastics, from grocery bags to straws. “As the anti-plastic straw movement has grown, it’s been harder and harder for me to keep up with the demand,” Schiff said.
Forty-four restaurants in Suffolk and seven in Nassau agreed this summer to stop providing plastic straws to customers as part of an environmental drive backed by Suffolk Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket). Municipalities including Malibu, California, Miami Beach, Florida, and Portland, Oregon, have gone beyond voluntary bans and have partly or fully outlawed plastic stirrers, straws and other items too small to be recycled properly.
Schiff, 44, a former nurse and current stay-at-home mother of four, said she developed her two-piece adjustable-length silicone straw after noticing how many plastic straws her smoothie-loving children used on a daily basis.
Schiff, who said she’s a runner and has always been health-conscious, was concerned about her children, Baylen, 14, Adelina, 13, Travis, 11, and Lulu, 10, getting enough nutrients in their diets, so she started making fruit and vegetable smoothies for them years ago. She quickly realized the family was going through “an unhealthy amount” of plastic straws.
“I knew how harmful plastic straws are to the environment, and I hated using and having to throw away so many, so I thought there has to be a better way. And then I thought of what materials were often used at the hospital where I used to work and thought of silicone, which is also used to make kid-safe products like pacifiers, teething rings and bottle nipples,” she said.
She searched for a silicone straw she could purchase online but didn’t find one, so she decided to design and patent her own, pooling her savings along with her husband’s to cover an initial $25,000 worth of manufacturing costs. Her products, which also include silicone cup lids and snack packs, are made at a factory in China.
Compared to single-use straws, hers are wider and sturdier. Their two-piece design makes them easier to clean and store, and they’re dishwasher safe.
Other companies, including New Jersey-based, woman-owned KoffieStraw, sell silicone straws. Reusable straws made of other materials like bamboo, glass and metal are also available.
Schiff remembers going to restaurants with her children and talking to people about her silicone straw.
“But no one took me seriously. Some people would tell me ‘Aren’t you tired? You should be taking a nap, not inventing stuff,’ but now I think people are finally waking up to how harmful plastic straws are to our environment and, like I was, are looking for alternatives. Only this year has the business exploded.”
Trixie Wilkie, marketing manager of Appalachian State University’s campus bookstore in Boone, North Carolina, wanted to add reusable straws to the store’s inventory. After a quick Google search, she came across Schiff’s product.
“Our student population is very interested in sustainability,” she said. “They’re looking for products that can help them minimize their carbon footprint, and of course as a business we’re interested in catering to that. We carry a bamboo utensil kit, resuable napkins and grocery bags too, so I figured reusable straws would do well here also.”
The dozen boxes Wilkie ordered from Schiff last summer sold out, she said, “so we decided to double our order for the fall semester.”
Mary Hauptman, president of the Long Island Center for Business & Professional Women in Melville, said Schiff’s experience as an entrepreneur reminds her of that of other innovators like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
“She was thinking ahead of her time,” she said. “Everyone calls you crazy until suddenly they think you’re a genius and think your product is amazing. If you think about it, no one needed an iPhone, and now everybody needs an iPhone.”
Hauptman said Schiff’s product is one that eco-concious people will love, adding that good timing is crucial to a business’ success. She also sees opportunities for GreenPaxx to expand at a quicker rate in the retail market if Schiff can forge partnerships with large smoothie chains and have them carry her company’s products.
“I would love that,” said Schiff. “Reusable straws are finally going mainstream, and that’s very exciting for me.”
At a glance
Company: GreenPaxx, Huntington
Owner: Cindy Schiff
Product: Reusable silicone straws, cup lids, snack packs
2017 Straw sales: 70,000 boxes at $10.95 each
Staff: 5 to 10 contractors