That is the estimated number of plastic straws polluting the world’s beaches, a problem Damilola Sanwo-Olu, a final year student of the University of Ibadan(UI) is working to solve. The 23-year-old recently launched her brand of reusable stainless steel straws called Seep n Save.
Before her venture into entrepreneurship, Sanwo-Olu often blogged about plastic pollution with an objective to create awareness of the danger it poses. But she soon realised, “it is not enough to write about these things,” and decided to do something about it. “Although awareness is key, it’s always good to profer solutions. Seep n Save was born out of looking at alternatives to plastic straws,” she said.
Seep n Save straws are made of 304 food-grade stainless steel and are corrosion-resistant; they won’t degrade over time to contaminate drinks and leave users with a metallic after-taste. The straws come in two ranges; the telescopic and the regular double straw set, both priced at N1,500 and N1,200 respectively.
The telescopic straw is compact and collapsible, with a case that doubles as a keychain. “This is for people who would want to go about with their straw. You can take the telescopic straw everywhere. It’s easy to have it on-the-go since it is can be adjusted to a preferred size,” Sanwo-Olu explained. The regular is a pair of one straight and one slightly bent straw that comes in a pouch. Both the telescopic and regular straw have a cleaning brush.
Sanwo-Olu believes the idea behind Seep n Save makes the brand unique. “I am not just doing this to make money. I am doing this to create awareness,” she says. The 23-year-old said before she decided to make her brand of eco-friendly straw, she talked to people, some of whom did not see the need to abandon plastic straws, “because they were not aware of the damage it caused.”
But after educating them on the danger non-degradable single-use straws pose and letting them know there are green alternatives, many had a change of heart. “Seeing how eager and willing people were to make the switch is what makes my brand different. I am not only selling a product, I am educating people and providing them with information that convinces them to adopt a different lifestyle,” she said.
People often overlook and downplay the threat that single-use plastic straws pose on the environment. There is even a debate on the actual effectiveness of alternative straws. Here’s the thing, plastic straws are not the biggest source of plastic pollution (they only make up about three percent of plastic waste by piece, and less than one percent by mass) and may not be the biggest threat to the environment but discarding them for an alternative is a step towards limiting plastic pollution.
There is also the “spillover” theory, which is the idea that engaging in one eco-friendly behaviour can spur further engagement in other eco-friendly behaviours. In this case, once people adopt the use of alternative straws, reusing becomes a habit over time and soon people would start carrying around not just reusable straws but also containers, shopping bags, etcetera. Given that some people have reservations about reusing straws, Sanwo-Olu said to think of it as cutlery. “We wash and reuse our spoons and forks. The stainless steel straw is just another cutlery.”
Initially, funding posed a challenge to the young entrepreneur, but she was able to raise capital with the support of family and friends. Shipping was another challenge. Seep n Save is currently being manufactured outside Nigeria, and considering the COVID-19 pandemic, shipping costs are quite high. There was also a delay in terms of product arrival. However, Sanwo-Olu is looking forward to working with local manufacturers in the future. “That way, I cut out the challenge and cost of shipping. This is just a start,” she said.
The final year student of UI plans to supply Seep n Save straws to restaurants, supermarkets, and retail stores across Nigeria. She is also looking for distributors within and outside Nigeria. “Someone has reached out from Ghana to be a distributor. I’m also working on creating a website to make the process of ordering seamless and faster,” she said.
Since the launch of the straws a little over a week ago, about 100 units have been sold to customers in Lagos, Ibadan, Osun, Abuja, with pending requests from Ghana. Sanwo-Olu has a sales goal of over a thousand units by the end of the year. She also hopes that the Nigerian government takes the fight against plastic pollution seriously by regulating plastics.
A popular method of mitigating plastic pollution is the source-reduction approach, that is prohibiting the production and use of single-use plastics. Adopting this method would certainly create a better environment for businesses like Seep n Save in Nigeria. Countries around the world are already aggressively regulating plastics. Over 30 African countries have implemented a partial or complete ban on single-use plastics.
Last year, Nigeria passed the Plastic Bag Prohibition Bill with an objective to ban the use, manufacture, and importation of plastic bags, but that bill is yet to be passed into law. “There should be a general ban on plastics,” Sanwo-Olu said. “The government should put a stop to the production and sales of plastics, starting with plastic bags and straws. Such a policy would reduce plastic pollution and open up the market for the demand and supply of alternative straws like Seep n Save.”