How Plastic Straws Became Restaurant Enemy No. 1
Give a Sip. #stopsucking. Strawless in Seattle. The campaigns may go by different names, but they’re all working toward the same result: reducing the number of plastic straws used by consumers across the world.
The Last Plastic Straw Organization estimates that 500 million straws are discarded every day in the U.S., many of which make their way into waterways and oceans, harming ecosystems and the environment as a whole. “We had been hearing about the environmental devastation caused by single-use plastics and how much garbage there is in the oceans and other waterways,” says Maisie Ganzler, chief strategy and brand officer for Bon Appétit Management Company, a restaurant group that operates more than 1,000 units across 33 states. “Straws in particular seemed egregious, because for the vast majority of people, they’re a convenience product.”
At the end of May, Bon Appétit announced it would phase out plastic straws by September 2019, thanks to the success one of its café partners—the University of Portland—saw after doing so earlier this year. The initiative will result in 16.8 million fewer plastic straws being used by the company’s customers each year. “It’s time we all have to recognize that when you throw something away, it goes somewhere,” Ganzler says. “Away is a place, and we’re responsible for away.”
Chef Stephen Phelps, an avid fisherman and culinary director at Sarasota, Florida–based Indigenous Restaurant, is making it his mission to help local restaurants like his transition away from the use of plastic straws. In partnership with Rethinking Plastic Sarasota, Phelps’ Chefs Collaborative created a website where brands can download a logo and educational materials to spread their Skip the Straw campaign throughout the coastal area. And while he says many brands in the seaside town are in favor of more environmentally friendly options—such as biodegradable paper, bamboo, or metal straws—the switch does come at a cost. “I think a case of 500 packs of 20 black straws costs $40,” Phelps says, noting that sustainable options run at least two to three times that cost. “But now we’ve got suppliers that are offering bulk purchases for local restaurant groups and organizations.”
At The Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille, the transition away from plastic straws has been less about cost and more about breaking habits, says president and CEO Bob Barry. With nearly 40 percent of its sales coming from beverages, the brand’s team members were accustomed to serving every drink with a straw—no questions asked.
After announcing its decision to eliminate plastic straws this past May, the company has been working not just to make the switch to a more eco-friendly option, but also to reduce the use of straws in general. “We obviously don’t want everybody to get a paper straw either, because yes, they’re biodegradable, but at the same time, the whole campaign was to ‘Skip the Straw,’” Barry says. “We don’t see any financial impact on our business because now we’re not giving a straw out to everybody.”
Sourcing truly sustainable options has been a challenge for Bon Appétit, Ganzler says, noting the shortage of suppliers who offer fully biodegradable—rather than just compostable—options. “Many compostable products, when run through commercial composting, do not actually biodegrade,” she says. “If a straw is to wind up in a waterway, we’d like it to biodegrade.”
Companies like Bon Appétit and The Green Turtle that have joined the anti-plastic straw movement see their efforts as just the start of a shift toward non-plastic products, and they expect brands to quickly begin phasing out materials like clamshell containers, plastic bags, and single-use plastic utensils as technology and distribution improve.
“It takes baby steps,” Indigenous’ Phelps says. “I think we really have the power to control the consumers’ decisions by eliminating their choices. You take away the matches, and no one can light a fire.”