The Reusable Revolution

When you consider the statistics regarding plastic waste in the world’s oceans, where it’s often broken down and consumed by wildlife, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of plastic used and discarded on a regular basis. Eight million tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean every year, the equivalent of five grocery bags full of trash for every foot of coastline in the world. A 2016 study determined that by 2025, there will be a third as much plastic in the ocean as fish, and by 2050 the ocean will hold more plastic than fish, by weight.

What does that mean for wildlife? We’re already seeing the effects: an endangered sperm whale killed by the plastic in its digestive system, coral reefs suffering from plastics blocking sunlight, and 90 percent of seabirds carrying plastic in their guts. Perhaps most concerning for those in the restaurant industry, studies have found that as much as 73 percent of fish, including those sold for human consumption, are contaminated with microplastics, the tiny pieces that larger items eventually break down into in the ocean. Even if you don’t eat seafood, the alarming amount of microplastics found in bottled water should concern you.

It’s hard to think of plastic straws as anything other than innocuous, since they show up on the table with our drinks nearly every time we dine out. Most diners use them without a second thought, but as the growing problem of plastic pollution becomes a more common topic of conversation, some operators are looking at disposable straws in a different light.

Starting with Straws

With so much plastic pollution in the oceans, disposable straws may seem like an odd place to start. However, because they are so small, straws are easily blown around, meaning they often become unintentional litter and make their way to the ocean. That can result in scenes like a viral video from 2015 that shows marine biologists treating a sea turtle found with a straw in one of its nostrils. According to the U.S. National Park Service, 500 million straws are used daily in the United States alone, so stemming that tide could prevent a lot of plastic pollution.

Thanks to a number of campaigns urging consumers to go straw-free, many restaurants are offering alternatives. We spoke with Diego Peña, bar manager at Boston’s Eastern Standard, about how the restaurant’s switch to reusable straws has affected operations.

Diego Pena, bar manager

Photo credit Emily Hagen

Before making the change a few months ago, the high-volume restaurant used 60,000 single-use plastic straws each year.

“We are not against straws, but we are against the massive amount of garbage a small item makes when it is only used for a few moments,” explains Peña. “We started months ago with reducing the amount of drinks that get straws and removing the small stir straws from most of the cocktails that we felt did not need one.”

While some restaurants have chosen to use paper straws, pasta straws, or none at all, Eastern Standard now uses reusable BPA-free plastic and stainless steel straws. Other restaurants have expressed concern for how local health departments would respond to reusable straws, but Eastern Standard did not have any problems getting their usage approved.

“We do not make a single decision that is not in compliance with the health department,” says Peña. “We approached our consultant from the health department and we treat these as we do our silverware. As long as they are soaked in a separate [quaternary] sanitary solution, the concentration remains at 200 ppm, they are washed twice in a high-temp dishwasher, and dried, it is in line with current health and sanitation standards.”

Cocktail with steel straw

Photo credit Emily Hagen

Straws may be just a small piece of plastic, but their use is so commonplace that this was still a major change. Thankfully, with a little planning, Eastern Standard employees adjusted without any problems.

“The changeover required a lot of moving pieces to make sure it went down without a hitch,” says Peña. “First thing was deciding on the straws that we were going to use. We had to make sure that they were safe to use, dishwasher safe, and recyclable. We had to over-communicate the changes with every single department. Getting the staff excited and informed about the change is key, [as is] making sure that our guests know why we decided to make this change.”

While Americans may have grown accustomed to using disposable plastic straws, Peña’s experience seems to suggest that customers are willing to accept changes to that norm.

“We have had way more positive reviews from guests than negative, that’s for sure,” he says. “We’ve had some thank us, others intrigued, and some folks haven’t even noticed, and that’s perfect for me.”

Eco-friendly Legislation

Because the plastic pollution problem is a public health issue, it’s no surprise that governments have begun regulating it. They range from carefully worded suggestions to outright bans, and more are likely to be added soon.

  • Beginning June 1st, a ban on all disposable plastic straws and utensils will go into effect in Malibu, Calif. Local studies during clean-ups found straws to be the fifth most-common litter on the city’s beaches, with plastic utensils sixth.
  • Supervisors in San Francisco are now considering following suit, with a ban on disposable plastic straws and utensils potentially joining a similar prohibition of polystyrene to-go containers in the City by the Bay.
  • San Luis Obispo, Calif., passed an ordinance last year stating that dine-in restaurants can only provide disposable plastic straws upon request.
  • Davis, Calif., had a similar ordinance go into effect in September 2017. Servers must now ask customers if they want a straw before offering one.
  • Seattle’s 2008 ordinance aimed at phasing disposable plastics out of the foodservice industry will be expanded to include disposable plastic straws and cutlery on July 1st.

Perhaps most notably, Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon introduced a bill in the California legislature in January that would prohibit dine-in restaurants from providing straws to guests unless they are specifically requested. The move likely isn’t surprising to those who followed similar legislative efforts aimed at environmental protection in the state, like a ban on plastic shopping bags and a failed attempt last year to prohibit polystyrene containers. Calderon’s bill, styled AB-1884, has passed its first test, with a 7 to 3 party-line vote in the Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee, but it still has several hurdles ahead of it. If it does make it through, it will be the first statewide legislation of its kind in the United States.

A food facility where food may be consumed on the premises shall not provide single-use plastic straws to consumers unless requested by the consumer. –Proposed Section 114082 of the California Health and Safety Code

If your restaurant decides to ditch single-use plastic straws, a little planning will go a long way.

“Communicate as much as you can with everyone in your restaurant,” recommends Peña. “This involves a few moving pieces that require everyone to be in line with it.”

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.

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