Reducing plastic waste with biowaste straws
In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Teresa Aylott of Little Green Panda. Teresa started a company in 2018 to sell drinking straws made of a wheat waste product.
The demand boomed as the hospitality industry decided to move away from plastic straws. And then last year, Teresa decided to merge with another liked-minded company creating the Little Green Panda we see today.
Together with her business partners, she’s reducing plastic waste, one straw at a time.
I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Teresa Aylott of Little Green Panda.
You can read the full transcript of this episode on Tammy’s blog.
Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:
Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020
This transcript has been modified for clarity.
TVD: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
TA: Teresa Aylott, Co-founder of Little Green Panda
TVD: Teresa, welcome to the show.
TA: Thank you very much for having me. It’s exciting.
TVD: I first heard about your company when I read an article in SmartCompany, and it was talking about the huge growth that you guys have had in just over a year of starting the business. I was hoping you could tell us more about Little Green Panda, and how it actually started?
TA: Yes, absolutely. There are actually two separate companies. So, I had my own business called Stroh, and I sold wheat drinking straws. Then Manon Beauchamp-Tardieu, who heads up Little Green Panda, she started with bamboo straws.
TA: About a year in, we met each other at a networking events, and we bonded over our love for the environment and straws. And we decided that we’d be stronger together. So, we united over a common goal to have a positive impact on the world. Fortunately, I went from a one-man band to joining a team of three. So, it’s Manon, her partner, Loris Campanile and Darine Djendoubi.
TA: They’re all French, and it was like a whirlwind romance, really – like Married at First Sight. We met, merged and then we figured it out afterwards. It’s been great. We compliment each other’s skill sets. They were really strong on the retail side. I was stronger in the hospitality side. Combined, we got some really good sales.
TA: We have since branched out, and we now do sugarcane stores as well. Which are proving to be more popular than the wheat and the bamboo.
Getting started with straws
TVD: Let’s go back a little bit because as you just mentioning, you actually started your own business. Probably about the time you started, there was this huge push away from plastic straws, and you found an alternative that wasn’t paper as that was mostly what we found. Can you talk a little bit about how you came up with that idea and how you came to market with it?
TA: Yes. I was inundated with all that awful news about the impact of plastic on the ocean. I just wanted to do something about it, and so I started researching sustainable business ideas. I started reaching out to people who might be able to help me with the ideas. I didn’t get much traction.
TA: Then I went on a trip to Amsterdam, and I discovered the wheat drinking straws there. So, I just started importing them to Australia. I literally would just go around to bars, restaurants, cafes with my box of straws selling them – kind of pensively at first. But people’s reactions were so positive that it ended up being a really fun thing to sell.
TA: I was very fortunate to get some really big franchises on board. And so, I validated the product very quickly. And the great thing about the wheat straws is it’s actually made from an agricultural waste product. So, the wheat stems would normally be used for like bedding for animals or food for animals.
TA: But there’s such an abundance of it that, that there’s plenty for the drinking straws as well. And because they’re 100% natural, they also break down much like a leaf or a twig would. So very harmless for the environment.
TVD: So, you started importing these from Europe. How much did you bring in to begin with?
TA: I think the first time I ordered a sample, I got about five pieces, which was pointless. Then, I got 10,000, and then the next order was like 40,000. It just kept increasing every time.
Making straws in Australia
TVD: Have you thought about actually manufacturing those here in Australia.
TA: Yes. That is the journey that we’re currently on. I reached out to a bunch of farmers, and they sent me samples of their wheat because there’s hundreds of varieties. It’s really hard to find one that’s got the right diameter that doesn’t have too many nodes. And that’s also strong enough.
TA: So we’ve actually whittled it down to a couple of potential varieties, and we’re working in the very, very early stages with CSIRO to scope out the viability of producing the straws here and the machinery we need. It’s a big process, but very early days.
TVD: I can imagine.
Wheat straw properties
TVD: With the wheat straws in particular, I know there’s a lot of people that are gluten intolerant or celiac. Are there concerns about people using those kind of straws if we have those issues?
TA: Fortunately, the gluten enzyme is in the actual grain of the wheat, whereas the stem is completely gluten free. It’s just like a plant stem. We’ve done all the tests, and there’s not a trace of gluten on them.
TVD: And does it taste like wheat when you’re drinking out of it?
TA: It’s completely flavourless, which is the great thing. And unlike paper straws, they don’t go soggy because they actually absorb the liquids, and then they get stronger and a bit bendier. And you say, lots of benefits.
How does the partnership work?
TVD: Let’s talk a little more about your business partners. Since you said that they’re really good at retail, and you’re really focussed on wholesale, I guess. Is that how you divided up to work?
TA: Yes. Well actually, that was how it was beginning. Then wholesale hospitality just grew so quickly that we all just ended up putting our efforts into that because that’s where the demand was.
TA: And then we started getting inquiries from all over the world because Manon, my co-founder is very good at the social media, and it generates a lot of organic leads from Singapore, America and Taiwan. So, we’re just a bit reactive now. Wherever the leads come, we just fulfil them.
TVD: Then you turn into a global business just by responding to those things.
TA: Yes, we’re not actively reaching out. It’s more just inquiries that come through.
TA: We’re also very fortunate that we’ve got some people who have been very generous with their contacts and their time because I think everyone hates soggy paper straws. And obviously lot of people care about the environment, and they want to support our cause. So, they’ve been quite generous in connecting us with their network. So, we’re quite lucky.
TVD: How are you dividing up the work nowadays?
TA: There’s a lot of crossover because like any business, like any start-up, you just have to get stuck in.
TA: Loris is very good at the finance and the logistics. And then Manon, she’s amazing at the social media, marketing and sales. And I’ve got a very similar skill set, but I guess my role is more focussed on sales, and then I just help out with marketing as and when it’s needed.
New developments in the straw space
TA: But also, I get very excited about the innovation side of things – working with CSIRO and Deakin University on developing new product. I think there’s so much opportunity to use agricultural waste to make new products. Very early days, but it’s an exciting space.
TVD: Especially in Australia when we still have so much agriculture here.
TA: Absolutely. Yes, so much agricultural waste. You just have to look at other countries and what they’re doing and realise that there’s a lot of opportunity. Like, for example, in America, they’ve got these straws made out of an invasive seaweed and you can eat them. Ikea has mushroom packaging. So, lots of exciting opportunities.
Customer segmentation for the types of straws
TVD: I’m looking at your website right now, and Monan’s actually there telling me that she can help me on the chat. Now, you started with wheat, she started with bamboo, and you’re saying sugar cane is your latest and fastest growing out of those. What kind of customers are interested in each of these?
TA: So, the bamboo we’re finding, it’s for individuals. They want a little pouch to carry around with them. And then the wheat is very popular with cocktail bars, cafes. It kind of has that minimalist hipster look. They get a lot of attention and customers (cafes and restaurants) are always saying that their customers always comment on them and think that they’re really cool.
TA: And then the sugar cane is created in a mould. So, you’ve got them in six, eight and twelve millimetre in diameter, which means they’re particularly popular for bubble tea and smoothies.
TVD: And also those that might already taste sweet to begin with.
TA: That’s it. Yes.
TVD: Are you going through distributors now?
TA: Yeah. At the beginning, we literally were just knocking on doors, selling direct to cafes and bars. I was also very fortunate. I was part of Worksmith, which is a food and drink hospitality co-working space that opened a lot of doors as well.
TA: Now distributors are our main focus because they just order pallets at a time, and it makes life so much easier than sending off individual boxes, which is very time consuming.
TVD: But also your margins would probably be smaller.
TA: Much smaller. But I guess overall, because we’re not spending so much time preparing the packaging, it makes sense.
TVD: And especially if you could eventually start making them locally, then you wouldn’t have to worry about all the import issues.
Impacts of COVID-19 pandemic on business
TVD: Given that you’re importing stuff from Europe, are you being impacted by the COVID-19 preventative measures right now?
TA: We are. Unfortunately, because 80% of our business is now hospitality, they’ve just obviously stopped ordering. Fortunately, we had a lot of stock. So, we don’t have to import anything from our suppliers for a while. So, we’re not going to be impacted by the increase in freight costs.
TA: It’s an opportunity for us to recalibrate in thinking about do we focus on other things during this time but more on the R&D side of things and perhaps push retail packs? It’s a challenging time but maybe it’s good to pause and reflect for a while.
TVD: Well, I think a lot of businesses are really doing that right now. If you could afford the cash flow, because obviously when you have a lot of inventory sitting around, there’s a lot of cash tied up in that sitting stock. But I suppose your customers are in a world of pain at the moment with so many restaurants having to shut down and possibly for good.
TA: I know. It’s a really tough time. And we’re re-evaluating the next couple of months. And I feel very sorry for the businesses that are struggling.
TVD: I think we’re all feeling that pain. And certainly just watching comments on LinkedIn, most people are just in this position of uncertainty because things are changing so fast that we haven’t had time to respond as individuals, much less businesses yet.
TA: Exactly. Yeah,it’ll be interesting to see what happens. And I mean, it looks like there’s some good government grants and supports. So hopefully those will help.
TVD: Yeah, well, I think a lot of businesses are gonna be needing some support for those types of things. But it’s great that you guys have some other opportunities to focus on while you might have less customer demand.
Maybe a pivot to hospital customers?
TVD: I was just trying to think about what else could you use those straws for. Hospitals – I assume would be a great customer for you right now.
TA: Hospitals? We were thinking actually of targeting hospitals.
TVD: Yeah. Because of the nature of lung infections. The (patients) are probably going to have a hard time drinking.
TA: That’s a really great suggestion, actually.
TVD: Especially because since there is such a shortage of transit (options) coming across from China at the moment. There’s just not a lot of options with all the flights closed down, and less boats are available. There’s going be a need for these innovations to come out of Australia and to be home-grown instead.
TVD: So, I think that a company like Little Green Panda – even though you’ve been focussed on the hospitality industry for so long – offering opportunities to another segment like the hospitals when they will need products like this seems like a good opportunity for someone like you.
TA: You’re right, actually. I think we need to add that to our target list. Good idea.
More about Teresa
TVD: Teresa, let’s talk a little bit more about you. As you said, you thought about this idea when you were travelling, but what made you so interested in the impacts of plastic that led you down this pathwas of looking for a business? What were you doing before you started your Stroh business?
TA: My passion for sustainability came about when I met a girl called Emily Penn. She’s now quite a famous ocean activist. When I met her, she was just starting on her expedition where she was sailing around the world on a yacht with a crew of scientists. And they were doing studies of the impact of plastic on the ocean.
TA: I met her at a networking event, and she told me how plastic ended up back in our food chain and how the great Garbage Patch in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. And I found it really shocking.
TA: So, I organised a couple of talks for her in London at a converted church in Hackney. They’re always packed out events, and everyone was so engaged and clearly equally passionate about this subject and all the issues that she was bringing to life. So that’s so triggered my interest.
TA: But I kept working at my corporate job for another ten years after that with a heightened sense of awareness of sustainability and trying to make and impact in the workplace. I worked in social media and in digital marketing type roles for advertising agencies and also large soft drink manufacturers.
TA: It got to a point where I couldn’t suppress that passion any longer. So, I decided to start my own business and put all my skills for the last 10 years and turn it into my own thing.
TVD: It seems like it’s taken off pretty quickly.
TA: Yeah, it’s great. I love building my own brand and doing the sales and product development. It’s very rewarding.
TVD: And not many people can say they’ve done it so quickly where they have a SmartCompany story that talks about your success already. So, congratulations. Jumping on at the right time, but obviously there’s a lot of work done behind the scenes that made that possible.
TA: I think timing was everything. And just start meeting the right people who helped me and spread the word and then meeting the right team with Little Green Panda. So, it’s just fell into place quite nicely.
TVD: Well, I know things are a bit crazy right now, and we’ve already talked about some of your future plans in terms of trying to develop a local product. Are there any other future plans that you want to share with our listeners at the moment?
TA: Yeah. For us, we recognise that there are a number of competitors in this sustainable straw space. To be appealing to investors and to grow, we need to create something in Australia. So that’s our next target to really use Australian agricultural waste. We’re looking for grants and people with experience in creating bioplastics to help us on our journey.
TVD: And are you looking at other product lines at the moment?
TA: We’re just focussing on the straws because it is actually quite a big market. The general packaging industry is quite saturated, and they’re dealing with such huge volumes that they can get their prices down very, very low. As a newcomer, I think we would struggle to match that. So, I think we’re just focussing on the straws now.
TVD: That makes sense from a time for money perspective when you know that you can’t possibly compete in that space right now. So that’s a smart move.
Requests for listeners
TVD: Do you have any advice to request from our listeners?
TA: Well, our next focus is producing a bio plastic straw in Australia or the wheat straws in Australia. So, we’re actively looking for a mechanical engineers and people who specialise in bio plastics to help us to come up with the recipe and the process to produce the straws. We’re really open to collaboration and like bouncing ideas around.
TVD: And right now, like I’ve noticed, there’s a lot of people that are going back to plastic because of the Covid-19 issues right now. And I think that there’s a lot of progress has been made with some of these alternative products like yours. Do you have any advice for people that may be thinking about those concerns right now in terms of going back and changing their habits again?
TA: Yes, and I can see why people on the cautious side at the moment. Like my local coffee shop won’t take my reusable coffee cup anymore. So, ideally, if you can find compostable alternatives packaging, that would be ideal. I think that’s the best solution right now.
TA: And also recycle if you’re going to use plastic just pop it in the recycling bin and make sure it’s clean. And essentially, it is the best options, I think: compostable packaging or recycle.
TVD: A good thing too, is that your products are still single use. It just happens that they’re much more friendly for the environment.
TA: Yes. The wheat’s is completely natural. So, it’s totally harmless to the environment.
TVD: And the bamboo and sugar cane, too?
TA: Yes. The sugar cane takes a bit longer to break down. It’s sugar cane pulp and its binded with small amounts of PLA. So ideally it has to gone into a commercial composting facility. The bamboo is obviously completely natural as it breaks down quickly.
TVD: And both the bamboo and the wheat can be composted?
TA: Yes. Completely home compostable.
TVD: Okay, that’s good to know as well.
How to find out more about Little Green Panda
TVD: If people want to find out more about you and Little Green Panda – maybe they want to buy some products for the house or for their business, what’s the best way to do that?
TVD: I’ll make sure to put all those contact details into the transcript so that people can find out more about you and the information more easily.
TA: That’ll be great. Thank you.
TVD: Teresa, thank you for what you and Manon and the rest your team are doing to provide alternatives for single use straws – in particular plastic straws that we can’t be impacted enough by the number of pictures we’ve seen with animals suffering because of those in the waterways.
TVD: The fact that there’s so many of them out there and used every year that without some alternative that doesn’t get soggy, a lot of people have stayed with plastic straws because the paper ones haven’t been as useful. So, it’s great to see that people like you are coming up with new solutions and also trying to use waste products to create these single used products.
TVD: Without these types of innovations, then people would have a harder time reducing plastic in their own personal lives and certainly in the restaurants that they cater to as well. So, thank you for the work that you guys are doing and trying to help the environment as well.
TA: Thank you so much for your kind words, and thank you for your amazing podcast, which is opening my mind to the world of plastics and opportunities in this space.
TVD: You’re very welcome. Cheers, Teresa.