While meeting some friends in a bar in Camden recently, I watched the bartender serve two straws with every drink. Each cocktail, fizzy drink and even glass of water. This struck me as unnecessary, but all something I had rarely noticed until the recent environmental debates. I assume the straws were there for aesthetics as I could not see the function of the second straw. I watched the guests using the straws for around twenty minutes before they tossed them away, which is an astonishingly quick lifespan for an item that will be on the planet forever. So I did some research and spoke to some of people within the industry looking to change attitudes, as well as companies trying to raise awareness or encourage alternatives to the plastic straw.
How damaging are they?
As with anything that is a global issue, so many people end up questioning what impact they alone make. The reality is quite concerning and I spoke to Jackie Nunez from the Plastic Pollution Coalition about the harmful effects:
“We do not recycle plastic straws, for various reasons: their size, inability to determine resin code, and cross-contamination. Plastic straws are the poster child for useless single-use plastic, an item most people do not need yet we are served them whether we want them or not.”
“I think the restaurant and bar industry has been duped to think that they are offering an extra service or that it is needed in their drinks or even wanted from their customers. We have become complacent and accept them without further thought when we are served a drink with a straw. We are finding on the whole 60-90% of patrons will not ask for a straw when not given one automatically. It is really closer to 80-90% of patrons don't want them in restaurants and most bars.”
“When I talk to bar and restaurant owners and tell them what we are finding, they don't believe me, but when I ask them ’how many people do you personally know that has straws at home and use them to drink their drinks on a daily basis? Maybe one out of ten of your friends?’ It directly correlates to our usage when at home. It makes them think, and I ask them why are they throwing away money and contributing so much plastic to their community's waste stream, when no one really wants it? It also really depends on the amount of frozen drinks served and if a business is so straw intensive in their presentation that their customers are essentially trained to expect straws in their drinks. Even then a little more than half of them will not ask for a straw. There are people with sensitive teeth, and others that have a disability that prevents them from being able to drink a drink from a rim of a glass.”
Hummingbird Straws is a company that looks at alternatives to the plastic straw and has some concerning facts:
“Every day Americans use 500 MILLION straws! That's enough to fill 46 large school buses every year. And unfortunately, they're not recyclable or biodegradable. So that means they end up in landfills and our oceans and never go away — ever.
“Plastic straws are also made of toxic chemicals known to increase the risk of cancer, reproductive disorders, and hyperactivity in children. And while you're unlikely to get dangerous levels of exposure from occasional plastic straw use, those chemicals are leaching into our soil and water, subjecting us to regular (and ever-increasing) levels of toxins.”
So despite being encouraged to recycle yoghurt pots and milk bottles at home, the impact when we eat out could be just as damaging, especially for an item we barely use.
What is the industry doing?
As the industry moves towards a greener future with an increase in farm to fork restaurants or those looking for local produce to cut down the air miles, what is being done about plastic straws?
Though Straw Wars may have an amusing name, the efforts they are going to in order to reduce plastic straws in the industry is admirable. Currently, Soho is pioneering the Straw Wars campaign with an ‘ask first’ policy. With 82 restaurants and bars taking part in the scheme, I would not be surprised to see it spreading further afield. Some argue where the responsibility lies, the business or the consumer. Hummingbird Straws thinks businesses can have an impact:
“Restaurants can adopt an ’ask first’ policy for straws. Instead of giving straws to every customer, restaurants can educate their customers that they will receive a straw if they ask for one first. This helps consumers know about the importance of plastic-waste production, and significantly cuts down on waste!”
However, if you are visiting an establishment without an ‘ask first’ policy, Jackie Nunez believes the customers asking for no straws initiate big change in the industry standards. When you order a drink with no straw you are educating your server, bartender and those around you.
While the public may be educated on the negative impact of plastic, the unobtrusive permeation of plastic straws in our society means that awareness of the damaging effect should be raised. Jackie believes awareness may be the way forward:
“I approach it with the belief that nobody sets out to pollute the planet we are just not aware....
Our statement on the importance of educating the public:
We believe plastic waste is the result of a lack of awareness regarding the refuse from products and services we use and take for granted every hour of every day. All of us with The Last Plastic Straw believe that the more we share with the world the effect these decisions have on our environment, the more inspired we will all be to change our habits.”
James from Save Some Green thinks it may no longer be in the hands of retailers or consumers, but instead governing bodies:
“Awareness is not quite enough, change is needed by whatever means we can find. It is here where Governments should be doing their job. Protecting the people by helping change based on reasons other than finance. Understanding the negative effects that plastic use (and convenience style living) have on the population and the environment.”
What are the alternatives?
We may choose to give up plastic straws entirely, but some people may need an alternative. Those with sensitive teeth or a disability may wish to look into alternatives, as will bartenders set on serving their drinks with straws. There are various non-plastic options available on the market that environmentally consumers and businesses should look into.
Hummingbird Glass straws are a non-toxic, sustainable alternative to single-use plastic straws. They are made with cookware-grade glass for durability. A person who makes the upgrade to Hummingbird Straws can save 36,000 plastic straws from polluting our earth in his/her lifetime. Plus, the customers report that their drinks taste crisper and more refreshing with glass.
Save Some Green is an online shop that is looking to save the environment one product at a time and has a variety of straws in different materials such as bamboo and stainless steel. Speaking to James at the company, it is clear he feels very strongly on this topic:
“I think the change begins with every person, it is always down to individuals. As an individual I run my business and as I believe there are better products; have to help get them to people and they try them and see they are better for their own reasons.
“Once they have made that first step they will soon make the second, then the third, knowing they are making the little changes that are important. Its symbiosis really.”