While plastic straws haven't yet gone the way of DDT, bithionol-containing makeup and grizzly bear hunting (a recent development courtesy of Federal Judge Dana L. Christensen of Montana), they've been well on their way since a worldwide explosion of anti-plastic straw sentiment this spring.
In April, Boise Weekly joined dozens of other news outlets nationwide in reporting the latest bars and restaurants to ditch plastic straws for paper with the goal of reducing environmental pollution, particularly in the oceans. If you missed the straw firestorm, here's the lowdown:
- [image-2] Straws contribute to ocean pollution and endanger marine life; U.S. News & World Report says there are nearly 7.5 million plastic straws clogging American beaches, and 437 million-8.3 billion of them littering coasts worldwide.
- According to Eco-Cycle, a nonprofit recycling company, U.S. citizens use some 500 million straws every day, which is enough to fill 46,400 40-foot school buses annually.
- While plastic straws are now recyclable in Boise through the newly pioneered Hefty EnergyBag program, which sends plastics to Salt Lake City to be converted into biofuel, they have to be trashed in most cities because they're too thin and light to make it through recycling machinery.
- Simultaneous anti-straw campaigns have sprung up nationwide in the last decade, pioneered by activists ranging from a nine-year-old Vermont boy to a California kayak instructor, and they've gained traction with the restaurant industry worldwide.
In Boise, downtown establishments as disparate as Dirty Little Roddy's, China Blue, Amsterdam Lounge, Bittercreek Alehouse, Red Feather Lounge and Eureka! had replaced or planned to replace plastic straws with paper straws on request by mid-April. Since then, more have followed suit, so many that the conversational tide has begun to turn away from a back-and-forth over the pros and cons of straws, and toward what should be the next single-use plastic item on the no-sell list. For Josie Pusl, the longstanding manager of The Flicks theater in downtown Boise, it's plastic water bottles—many of which are no longer recyclable because of the strict new recycling regulations from China that spurred Boise's Hefty EnergyBag program.
"Right now we're really focusing on phasing out selling the plastic water bottles. We still have them available because customers still want them, but we're kind of trying to train our customers to just purchase a [paper] cup of water instead, and we've made those affordable," Pusl said, adding that customers are also allowed to bring in their own water bottles, and The Flicks offers free mini cups of water as well. Water bottle sales have dropped dramatically since staff began their efforts.
The Flicks made the switch to compostable paper straws, which are available for customers to take at the cafe counter, in June. According to Owner Carole Skinner, ditching the plastic was a no-brainer once she started to seriously consider it.
"There was a story about this and I was like, 'Oh my gosh," said Skinner, "I've been going to the zoo for years and years and they don't allow straws of any kind, and I thought, 'Why is that?' And of course it's because it's dangerous to the animals. And then I just feel like it was a cumulative effect, where it was like, 'Oh, this is something we could actually do where there's an alternative.'"
The Flicks orders one case of straws per month (about 1,000 total) from WPC Solutions, and Pusl said the difference in price "is negligible," adding paper is only "a fraction of a cent per straw" more expensive.
Just a handful of blocks away, at 10 Barrel Brewing Company, the story was different for Chef and Manager Keith Moreno. He said that when 10 Barrel made the switch to paper straws in July, the straws it ordered from Aardvark (a company that now warns shoppers it has a 35-week lead time due to popular demand) cost roughly 10 times more than its plastic ones used to. But offering those straws only on request really cuts down on that cost.
"We just felt like it was time, you know. We've seen what's happening, we saw a documentary on the effects of plastic around the world especially on the oceans and in our landfills. And we just felt as a restaurant that one of the things we could do was help that out by going to paper straws and limiting the straws we put out," Morena said.
The restaurant eliminated plastic stir sticks at the same time, and Moreno said its focus on "overall waste management" means it's always looking for the next environmentally friendly swap.
"Our to-go containers are already biodegradable, so we're ahead of that, but it's just kitchen stuff [we're looking at now]. We've always got our eye out," said Moreno.
So, what's going to be the next plastic straw, a single-use plastic item unpopular enough to get the attention of giants like Starbucks (which has unveiled designs for a straw-free cold cup) and the City of Seattle, which banned plastic straws and utensils in restaurants in July? The answers from worldwide news outlets vary; plastic stir sticks, bags, water bottles, microbeads and balloons are all suggestions for the no-sell list. Ultimately, it's up to consumers—there's a vote in every wallet.