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A Valparaiso-based online retailer aims to help the planet by eliminating disposable plastic straws, which end up languishing in landfills for centuries or choking turtles in the ocean.

Lisa Harrington and Adam Harrington launched Mermaid Straw, which sells stainless steel straws and glass straws that are reusable, as well as flatware, drinkware and apparel online to customers across the globe.

"Single-use plastic straws are quite bad," Lisa Harrington said. "We use them for five to 10 minutes, and they last 500 to 1,000 years. Since they're so lightweight, when we throw them away, they often fly off the garbage truck. The rain sweeps them into creeks, rivers, lakes and oceans, where animals mistake them for food, and they can harm the animals. It's also toxic for us to put plastics in our drinking water. Our bodies are not equipped to deal with that, not to mention a million seabirds that might try to eat a plastic straw or plastic bag."

The Harringtons started the business in a Valparaiso office building last year after an illness prevented Lisa Harrington from continuing her real estate career.

"I wanted to find an online business that would make a difference in the world," she said. "This is helping to eliminate plastic from landfills and oceans."

The average person in the United States uses about 580 disposable plastic straws per year, Adam Harrington said.

"Based on the number of sales so far, we believe we have saved over 30 million single-use plastic straws," he said.

They sell a variety of food-grade stainless steel straws in different colors, including cocktail straws, smoothie straws and wider straws for boba teas. They've also released a line of flatware with forks, knives and chopsticks that people could use as an alternative to disposable plastic silverware at some restaurants and catered events.

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"Any product that can be switched from single-use to reusable, we'll look at doing," Adam Harrington said. 

The Harringtons opened their company just before momentum mounted for a nationwide push to switch from plastic straws to paper ones, which Disney parks, Guaranteed Rate Field and many other institutions started carrying this year. Paper straws are a better option than plastic but not the best one, Lisa Harrington said.

"It's good that people have a more eco-friendly mindset, but paper straws are inferior," she said. "They're still tossed out. They're made of trees and not sustainable unless it's tied to a tree farm. But it's great that people are more aware of this, and it's really helped the company."

Mermaid Straws has sold to customers in all 50 states and abroad, including to many people in Adam Harrington's native Australia, as well the United Kingdom, Ireland, Switzerland and Italy. 

"We don't think we can save the environment ourselves," Adam Harrington said. "But it's a gateway to get people to think more ecologically. We have people contacting us all the time saying they have a few iced coffees a day from Starbucks and don't want to use so many straws. If people start bringing their own straws, utensils or reusable grocery bags, it can have a big snowball effect."

The company donates to many conservation-related charities and also has staged regular beach cleanups on Lake Michigan, including at the Indiana Dunes State Park. Lisa Harrington said they also hope to visit local elementary schools to teach kids about plastic use.

"This is a business with a mission," she said. "We have customers around the world and are trying to make a difference, to make the world more sustainable."

For more information, visit mermaidstraw.com.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.