A couple of weeks ago, I watched this video of a girl rallying 100 of her colleagues to go straw-free for a week.
At first, they couldn’t get used to drinking their cold beverages without a straw.
But as the week passed, the majority of them were able to wean off plastic straws. She later awarded some of those colleagues with reusable glass straws.
Right after watching the video, I decided to #stopsucking too, and I have been drinking my iced kopi ga dai from the cup. Sounds crazy, but I haven’t used a plastic straw for about two weeks now!
After I shared that video, a friend of mine then told me that she has been using bamboo straws, and directed me to the shop she got them at.
This was how I found out about 26-year-old Melissa Lam, the Bamboo Straw Girl.
A Series Of Inspiring Events
Melissa’s journey to green living began with experiencing nature first-hand.
She said in this interview that an invitation from her friend to stay in a hut on the mountains helped her see “clearer” the impact we have on our environment.
During the stay, a problem they had was that they “couldn’t just bury” all their trash if there were any plastic waste. Melissa and her friend had to bring the plastic matter down the mountain to dispose of them.
In a situation like that, you really start to think about the things we do that affect the environment.
She previously worked in the news industry and is currently a private educator, running Bamboo Straws Worldwide on the side since 2014.
Her inspiration to make bamboo straws happened in Japan, where she met a bamboo craftsmen selling handmade products, and saw a bunch of thin bamboo sticks with him.
She joked to her sister about making straws out of those bamboo sticks, but when Melissa made her “first bamboo straws ‘just for fun'”, they were a success.
“I mean, duh, it’s hollow!” she shared happily.
In the same way she first made her bamboo straws, her entrepreneurial journey started with a ‘let’s-see-where-this-can-take-me’ attitude.
“I have no past business experience, but I decided that if I wanted these sustainable products, others would too. It was a very organic flow from the spark of an idea to setting up an online shop,” she shared.
I think it helped that I saw it as a passion project rather than a business per se, at least at first, because things were very slow in the beginning.
Bamboo Straws Worldwide had begun with just the humble reusable bamboo straw.
Now, it has over 10 products, including natural soap bars, bamboo fountain pens, and fabric wraps, and strawkeepers.
“I had very little startup cost as I managed everything myself, from creating product images to social media posts and website design,” she told me.
The Straw Stopper
On to the star of the show – the bamboo straws Melissa sells.
Before they end up in our cups, the straws are dried, made smooth, and cut.
As she explained in that interview, the straws “go through natural treatments, like boiling”.
She thinks bamboo straws “feel the gentlest” as compared to metal or plastic straws.
There is something lovely about holding an organic product from nature. They are 100% natural and eventually can be returned to the Earth leaving no trace.
“It is wonderful that we can trace it all the way back to its origin. There are no machines or other by-products involved in their production. Mothers usually like our bamboo straws because they are kid-friendly and very hardy.”
Melissa sources all her makers from Southeast Asia – similar to this sustainable fashion brand who sourced theirs from all over Asia, like India and Indonesia.
“The batik bulk bags and mystery strawkeepers are made from surplus or scrap fabric sourced from independent tailors and seamstresses. Some of these seamstresses and tailors are local,” she said.
“Getting in touch with the makers usually requires on the ground footwork and talking about details and expectations. In the age of the Internet, there are still some things better done face-to-face.”
At first, her bamboo straws were not getting plenty of traction at home and “had very little interest locally”, but she put in effort to change that through social media.
That all paid off because she has seen a lot of changes since the last quarter of 2017.
“Local orders were so few and far between that I would have a mini celebration every time I saw a local address pop up in the order system,” she recounted.
She is now getting more orders now as the bulk of the packages she mails to are Singapore addresses.
The furthest place she has sent her straws to is Alaska. She also gets customers from Europe, Australia, and USA.
“Sometimes, when travellers are making their way through SEA and are coming through Singapore, they send me a message asking if they can pick their order up in person since they have no fixed address. I usually oblige.”
“After that, they tag me in their travel pictures and it’s nice to have that human connection! I’ve done this for at least 10 travellers or travelling couples,” she gushed.
Going Straw-ng In Her Entrepreneurial Journey
Melissa describes her journey as an entrepreneur as “unexpected” and “fun”.
Perhaps she meant to say unexpectedly fun, considering how it all started for her.
And you can sense her passion for the project, as she said this as an afterthought, “I spend literally every moment thinking about work, but I enjoy it…”
Besides reaching out and engaging with customers online, Melissa also takes her business offline when she can at market stalls.
“I enjoy market stalls especially as it’s always nice to know the customer – sometimes people come up to the stall and say that they’ve bought from the shop before. That’s always heartwarming!” she quipped.
I think people can tell when you are genuine about connecting with them, and that’s why I think market stalls have helped me reach out to more people.
As her presence grows, she said she’s feeling “thankful” to have opportunities to share her story in schools and companies.
“I think the main aim for me with these sharings is to spark conversation and to get people thinking about what personal steps they can take, no matter how small, to tread a little bit lighter on our land,” she mused.
She revealed that there are no plans for her to set up a physical store, but she is working on creating a website just to cater to the growing orders in Singapore.
Her bamboo straws could potentially be stocked at selected stockists as Melissa told me she’s currently in talks with them.
You can get her products from early April at an upcoming pop-up shop in OneKM located at Paya Lebar.
“It will be the first green pop-up shop [that will bring] together more than a dozen local sustainable brands,” she shared.
Maybe I’ll put an end to my straw-less days and get myself a bamboo straw. And a bamboo flask to replace the plastic cup for takeaways while I’m at it.
Featured Image Credit: Bamboo Straw Girl, Melissa Lam