About five years ago my housekeeper’s son decided to start a little business making bamboo drinking straws. I’ve known Putu since he was four years old. So he’s been under my indirect influence most of his life, receiving subliminal messages through his mother Wayan Manis about waste management, nutrition and the environment. Now 20, he wouldn’t dream of tossing litter, prefers unpolished rice to white and is mainly vegetarian.

Putu was concerned about the pollution caused by plastic drinking straws in his own environment, years before the issue reached the crescendo of discussion today. He’s always been a serious, focused, hard-working lad like his father, whose ringtone is a voice shouting “Bangun! Kerja! Jangan Malas!”(”Wake up! Get to work! Don’t be lazy!”). Once Putu focused on the waste issues at his high school, he decided to try and do something about it.

The big picture is horrific. Drinking straws are made of polypropylene, which takes up to 200 years to break down.

About 500 million drinking straws are used daily in the United States alone; about 3.5 million straws are given out daily just by McDonalds in the United Kingdom. The statistic for the EU is 3.5 billion a year. Those numbers don’t include statistics for India, China and Indonesia, which use huge numbers of straws but don’t keep count. Many of these end up in the ocean and make up about 3% of recovered trash. Over a million sea birds a year die from ingesting plastic. These numbers are all from the last year.

The business started small. The family placed an ad on the www.indonesiaorganic website and soon had a few local restaurants as customers. In early 2014 the first international customer contacted me (as the English speaker, I’ve been the go-between) with an order for 1000 straws – the largest yet. I still have a picture of a much younger Putu holding a big box addressed to California. It was a proud moment.

The learning curve was steep for the family. They needed help establishing systems for taking orders, production, invoicing and mailing. At first Putu and his cousin Agus made the straws with some help from Nyoman when he had time. As the orders increased Putu’s sister, other relatives and neighbours were roped in. Wayan Manis did the quality control, packing and fighting with the post office about its constantly changing rates.

The right kind of bamboo for straws is rather rare (I haven’t been able to establish the variety, it may be Schizostachyum). The bamboo is not cultivated, but grows wild here and there on Bali. There’s a stand of it on land belonging to Wayan Manis’ extended family in central Tabanan, and twice a year the family hires a truck and drives to the remote ravines where it grows. Harvesting is hazardous in the rainy season when the ravine banks become steep and slippery. At certain times of the year the female King Cobras sit on their eggs among the bamboo roots, which adds a certain piquancy to the exercise. Only the slimmest culms are selected and cut.

Making bamboo drinking straws is very labour intensive. After harvesting, the bamboo has to be dried in the sun for at least a month to ensure there’s no moisture inside or out. Drying the bamboo has been a huge problem over the past year due to the incessant heavy rain and sometimes slows down production for weeks. Once dry, the bamboo is cut by hand to the right length with a small saw. The cut bamboo is carefully cleaned inside and out and then polished with loose sand, again by hand. About half the raw material is the wrong size and can’t be used. A worker can make about 100 straws a day.

The business kept growing and made the family a comfortable little living for several years. They began sending straws to Australia, the United States, Taipei, the United Kingdom and occasionally exotic destinations like Lithuania and the Cook Islands.

Then about a year ago, there was a big shift. Suddenly, bamboo straws were a hot commodity internationally. The family began to receive enquiries for very large numbers of straws. People were asking for 10,000, 50,000, 100,000 straws with very short turnaround time. We patiently                   explained that this was a very small cottage industry without the human or material resources to fill such huge orders.

The family were now fielding daily queries, some of which required many emails before orders were placed. It kept raining and the bamboo would not dry. Ceremonies held up production further. Australia imposed a new regulation that all bamboo products has to be boiled for 30 minutes. Customers complained about waiting for their orders. The family began to stress out. Costly mistakes were made.

We sat down for a meeting and decided that the family would withdraw the ad from the website, and limit production to about 10 long-term customers. This helped with the stress levels while bringing the supply and demand issue into sharp focus.

Here’s a contemporary paradox. The world suddenly demands huge volumes of bamboo drinking straws which cannot be met. This little industry cannot be ramped up. The raw material is not plentiful and only grows in the wild. It’s unlikely to ever be cultivated because of the high cost of land and low/slow return on the usable crop. But an even greater obstacle is the lack of labour.

I spoke to Agung Alit, founder of Mitra Bali Fair Trade, about the production of arts and crafts in Bali today. Agung originally trained as a lawyer but later directed his passion for justice to creating systems to support the craftspeople of Bali. He was named an Ashoka Fellow for his work in 2001.

“Mitra Bali used to have up to 60 artisans making crafts for export, now we have only 16. Most of the rest are in the construction industry now, building houses,” he told me. “Even with Mitra Bali support, they struggle to make a living. Raw material is more expensive, but it’s also a cash issue. We pay a 50% deposit on orders but that is quickly spent; they would rather get a daily rate as a builder. And young people don’t want to work with their hands any more. With them, it’s more about status than money.”

Wayan Manis agrees. She’s constantly seeking workers to make straws and is constantly disappointed in the lack of interest, low quality of the work and the inability to meet deadlines. She’s also frustrated by the impact of constant ceremonies on production which is new angle for her.

We’ve had queries from India, Thailand and China, places I’d expect to have their own bamboo straw production. But they don’t. There’s a similar small initiative in Cambodia which is dealing with the same issues of access to raw materials and lack of labour.

So don’t expect to see bamboo straws flooding the market. This seems to be the tipping point; handmade items from natural materials will become increasingly rare just as the word begins to realise their value. We live in strange times.



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