Two Oregon high schoolers have teamed up with their grandfather to create a biodegradable drinking straw. They say the seaweed-based invention is a step toward more sustainable alternatives to disposable plastic products. The crew conducted many experiments in a garage-turned-laboratory and hope to create other products using biodegradable materials like shellfish exoskeletons, seaweed and lac bug excretions.
Edward Brezina is a senior at Oregon Episcopal School. Emile Cantrell-Moore is a senior at Lake Oswego High School. Bob Cantrell is their grandfather and mentored the students on the project. We hear more from them about the straw and what it was like collaborating with family members on the experiments.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. We turn now to a story of entrepreneurship and family bonding. Over the last year, two Oregon high schoolers have been spending time with their grandfather to create a biodegradable drinking straw. They say their seaweed-based invention is a step towards more sustainable alternatives to disposable plastic products. They also say that they’ve been learning lessons about failure and perseverance. Edward Brezina is a senior at Oregon Episcopal School. Emile Cantrell-Moore is a senior at Lake Oswego High School. Bob Cantrell is their grandfather. They all join me now. It’s great to have all three of you on the show.
Emile Cantrell-Moore: Thank you.
Bob Cantrell: Thank you.
Edward Brezina: Great to be here.
Miller: Emile, first. What was a catalyst for this project?
Cantrell-Moore: I think the biggest thing was really just bonding with our family and like you said, experiencing failure. I think that was one of the biggest steps into realizing this is what entrepreneurship is like, and how great it is to be bonding with my family at the same time.
Miller: Edward, was there a moment when you said there’s a problem with straws and we are the people who are going to fix this?
Brezina: Yeah. Actually, it was us three eating in a fast food restaurant one day. I forgot what fast food restaurant specifically but we were drinking out of our paper straws, sitting and talking and we realized that after 20 minutes, our paper straws were kind of soggy. They were kind of impractical to use anymore. And although we knew that they were biodegradable and bio-based and they were good for the environment, it lacked practicality to be honest. So we were thinking, could we make an affordable, yet practical and biodegradable environmentally safe option for this straw? And that’s kind of where it came from. We want to include the environmental-ness of a paper straw. And then, the practical-ness of a plastic straw and make it affordable.
Miller: Bob, enormous multinational corporations are involved in making the things [like] utensils and straws. What gave you the confidence to say this is something that we can take on?
Cantrell: Well, I’ve had quite a bit of experience starting companies before. I started a company several years ago. And in five years, we went from zero to $10 million in revenues and sold it for $4.5 million. I’ve started another company I’m involved with today. We started at zero and we’re up to $12 million and making $1 million profit. So I have confidence that we can get there. I have the experience in the background.
Miller: So you’ve done it before?
Miller: So where do you start? It’s one thing to recognize this problem - you’re at some fast food restaurant, 20 minutes in, which is, I should say that’s actually pretty good. Some paper straws, you can’t even get 20 minutes out of. What was the first step?
Cantrell-Moore: Well, the biggest step for us was research and development. Try, try, try, fail, fail, fail. And then that one time you succeed, right? It looks like overnight success when in reality, we’ve been researching and developing for the past year. I think one of the first things is that you realize the issue and just realize how you can find a solution and solve a major world problem, which is too much plastic in the ocean.
Miller: Edward, what do you see as the problems with the existing straws on the market? You talked about paper straws just sort of ceasing to exist in their current shape, but there are theoretically biodegradable ones in the market. What’s wrong with those?
Brezina: So there’s two kinds of straw markets. There’s one that’s kind of reusable for the general public and then there’s one, like you would sell to Russia, for example. And it would be I guess brought out to the general public. So it’s reusable versus just one-time use of straws. And although biodegradable and practical, one-time use straws do exist, there’s kind of the problem of affordability. Often these restaurants don’t want to be spending a lot of money on their straws because it’s something that they’re supposed to give out for free. It’s not supposed to be a big burden. So they don’t want to buy these, I guess, better environmentally friendly and practical options. They’d rather just have a little bit cheaper paper straws while also doing good for the environment.
So our goal was to kind of change this narrative I guess at some point and try to somehow make it affordable as well for the restaurant. So it’s not a big…and they don’t have to go out of the way to get this. And that’s kind of like our goal in that sense.
Miller: Bob, I understand that the work you’ve three have been doing is in your garage turned lab. Do you have a piece of equipment there? Did you already have one that could turn out straw shaped things?
Cantrell: No, we had to purchase an extruder and a pelletizer. So we had to buy some equipment and then buy some supplies. And that’s what we started testing with. I put the ab in there to do another project called desalination of water. I was working by myself without the grandsons. So the lab had already existed. All I had to do is add a piece of equipment or two and away we went.
Miller: What were the materials that you’ve tried out? I mean, because you’ve talked now about failures as well. I’m curious, first of all, what’s the first thing you used to try to make a better straw?
Cantrell: I might answer some of that. I tried things like Alginate, which did not work at all.
Miller: Is that made from algae?
Cantrell: Well, it is. But it’s a thermal-based product. It just did not work, and we tried some other things too like carrageen, which did not work very well.
Miller: When you say it didn’t work, what were the problems?
Cantrell: Performance, mostly.
Cantrell-Moore: Like lack of water resistance, too expensive. Some of the stuff isn’t FDA-approved, stuff like that.
Brezina: And one thing I would add on is that, I guess throughout this last year, we went through lots of research over and lots of like trials and failures, just trying different things with each other until we landed on kind of something with glycerin, seaweed and chitosan, and that’s the formula we’re working with at the current moment. And that’s something that actually passed these tests. But before we were just trying to throw around FDA-approved because all these ingredients have to be FDA-approved, since you’re actually using them with mouth contact. But we were just trying to throw around these until we could finally try to land on one in an attempt to solve this goal.
Miller: So Emile, when you say that one of the things you’ve learned from this is the benefits of failure or the necessity of dealing with failure. What do you mean?
Cantrell-Moore: I think that starting a company at such a young age really gives us a base to understand life lessons and understand that failure doesn’t mean give up, it means keep going, and persevere. I think that’s the biggest lesson that it taught me, especially, is just like the life lessons, like never give up. And when we can really see success like this, I think our prototype we have currently is pretty successful. I think it really just shows that perseverance is worth it, and always persevering and never giving up hope, especially when you’re starting a small business is key to its success.
Miller: Bob, you mentioned having started a number of businesses at this point and actually brought products to market and made revenue. Where would you say you are right now just in terms of the life cycle of a potential business?
Cantrell: We’re very early on [in] our life cycle, but I might mention some of the other companies - one of them, we started in a bedroom. Another one started in a guy’s basement, just like Nike started in the back of his car. And I think Apple started in his garage too and that’s the way I like to start businesses…very small and start off that way and then you grow them to where you’re at.
Miller: What about cost here? I mean, Edward, what’s the cost that you’re aiming for to make this viable? To make it so some fast food restaurant would actually buy a box of your straws?
Brezina: Yeah, so the numbers are kind of very specific to each restaurant and how you’re getting the materials, the straw. But in general, we’re trying to aim where it’s competitive in the straw market currently and it’s actually a lot cheaper than you would think. I think it’s around 0.0019 cents per straw. And that’s market value, I guess, selling to the restaurants. Don’t quote me on that though because I don’t know exactly. But our goal here is to make our straw competitive with the current straw market, while also being practical and biodegradable and bio-based. And if we can get it to competitive, which starts basically how we’re getting the materials…cost and labor and all the different logistics are constant for each straw, but it’s the material price and how you’re getting those materials, which are kind of the changing variable in this equation. So if we can get that cheaper, we can probably try to get it competitive with the straw market and thus actually try to get it into stores at a point in the future.
Miller: Bob, we’ve heard what it’s meant for your grandkids to work with you and what they’ve learned about failure and perseverance. What have you gotten out of specifically working with your grandkids?
Cantrell: Well, I enjoyed mentoring them and bonding with them. Working together, you really get to know someone better that way rather than just say hi, but I really enjoy mentoring because right now I’m also mentoring five Oregon State graduates and senior program for a Capstone program for desalination of water. And we have a facility set up down in Philomath. And I’m mentoring five of them. At the same time, I’ve been mentoring the two grandsons, so I enjoy the mentoring process.
Miller: Bob Cantrell, Emile Cantrell-Moore and Edward Brezina, thanks very much.
Cantrell-Moore / Brezina: Thank you.
Cantrell: Thank you so much. Appreciate it.
Miller: These two grandsons and grandfather, the three of them have been working for about a year now on a multigenerational project to create a biodegradable drinking straw. Emile Cantrell-Moore is a senior at Lake Oswego High School. Edward Brezina is a senior at Oregon Episcopal School. Their grandfather and mentor is Bob Cantrell.
Contact “Think Out Loud®”
If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook, send an email to email@example.com, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.