IN TOFINO, IT’S THE LAST STRAW
Town moves to ban plastic utensil
I’m about to take a sip of one of SoBo’s famous key lime margaritas when I realize, wait a minute, something’s missing. That’s when chef-owner Lisa Ahier looks over and says, “There’s no straws in Tofino any more, because of the litter.” Ah. That explains it. On March 1, the town of Tofino began a campaign called Straws Suck with the intention of getting all local businesses to ban plastic straws by Friday — Earth Day. A couple of days before the deadline, all but three businesses were on board, and even the stragglers were well on their way to complying in time.
“We’re almost at 100 per cent completion,” says Michelle Hall, co-chair of the Pacific Rim chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, the environmental group spearheading the campaign. “I’m totally confident we’ll have everybody. It’s pretty cool.”
What’s not cool is the amount of non-biodegradable garbage caused by plastic straws each year. Straws are a significant part of the 20 million tonnes of single-use plastics that end up in the ocean each year, according to Surfrider. They are not just unsightly — they are a hazard to sea life, and worse, they introduce toxins into the food chain.
The question is, why do we need straws anyway? And how did we get to the point where our planet is choking on them?
Admittedly, there are some occasions where a straw is a good idea. Dentists love them because they prevent acidic drinks from coming in contact with tooth enamel, thereby reducing tooth decay. And they’re certainly a good idea if you’re uncertain about the cleanliness of your drinking vessel.
Mostly, though, straws make it easier to enjoy thick, rich, textured drinks like smoothies, slushies, milkshakes, bubble tea and cocktails such as juleps and mai tais.
“With crushed ice, it’s quite necessary to have a straw,” says David Wolowidnyk, the bar manager at CinCin Ristorante in Vancouver. “But today it’s usually because a woman doesn’t want to get lipstick on her glass. In its original format, it was used to get cold drinks past sensitive front teeth.”
That was in the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution, when a growing middle class had access to newfangled chilled cocktails, but dentistry hadn’t quite caught up to culinary technology. Straws, typically made from hollow rye grass, exploded in popularity back then, but they’ve been around a lot longer than that.
In fact, straws are considered among the oldest of eating and drinking utensils. Archeologists have found beer-drinking straws made of gold and semi-precious stones in Sumerian tombs that date back 5,000 years. In South America, wooden straws were used for millenniums, and evolved into the silver bombilla used for sipping yerba mate.
But there wasn’t a new development in straw technology until 1888, when an American inventor named Marvin C. Stone was unhappy about the way the grassy taste of his rye straw was affecting the bourbon in his mint julep. He wound a strip of paper around a pencil to make a tube, glued it together, and coated it with wax so the glue wouldn’t dissolve in his drink. And so the paper straw was born.
It ruled the market until the 1960s, when cheap plastic straws came along. Today, plastic straws are ubiquitous, which is why Surfrider is expanding its Straws Suck program to other communities, including Vancouver.
When Wolowidnyk joined the team at CinCin a year ago, “they were going through, in several different straw formats, 5,000 straws a month, and this is not a busy bar,” he says. “Some bars are likely going through 10,000 a month…
“Imagine that times the number of bars all over the world and the numbers are staggering.”
Bars don’t serve drinks with straws the way fast food joints do. High-level bartenders use straws to taste each and every cocktail before it goes out, making sure it’s perfectly balanced — and it could take four or five tastes to get a single drink just right.
“If a bartender is conscientious about tasting each and every drink, it really adds up,” Wolowidnyk says.
That’s why he stopped using straws to taste cocktails several years ago and instead uses oldfashioned muddling spoons, with long stems and tiny bowls. (He finds them at Daiso, the Japanese department store in the Aberdeen Centre.) He then carefully cleans and sterilizes each spoon in a vessel of overproof alcohol.
“The spoon method is also closer to me in mimicking the sensation that you would get off the side of the glass,” Wolowidnyk says. “It just spreads across the palate more naturally.”
He’s been pioneering this method for years, and some bartenders have adopted it. Others are reluctant to do so.
“There is the visual of using a straw to taste and immediately throwing it in the bin. It seems to reassure our guest that the straws are one-time-use only,” says Sabrine Dhaliwal, bar manager at UVA Wine & Cocktail Bar in Vancouver.
“I’m continually looking for another solution,” she adds, noting that UVA uses biodegradable straws and only gives them to customers upon request. “I am interested to see what the bartending industry in Tofino collectively creates as a solution. Maybe we could follow suit.”
It was an easy switch to make, says Jorge Barandiaran, the front of house manager at Tofino’s Wolf in the Fog restaurant. All it took was a single call from Surfrider, and that very day they stopped using plastic straws.
“We decided we would immediately stop putting straws in drinks unless guests ask for them,” he says. “We thought about using bamboo straws, but people walk away with them, and they are not cheap. We’re going to switch to a corn-based straw.”
Behind the bar, they use stainless steel straws to taste drinks. And the change has encouraged them to make other positive moves, including adopting a food-composting strategy.
“It was really nice just to light that flame and look at how we could save some money and do something good for the environment,” Barandiaran says. “It’s amazing that the whole town has got behind it.”
As Vancouver businesses consider following Tofino’s lead, it’s the cost of sustainable alternatives — paper, corn, bamboo or stainless steel — that will be the most prohibitive. Still, Wolowidnyk says, “If it was 100 per cent my decision, I would ban straws completely. And if a customer wanted a straw, I’d carry paper straws and charge a nominal fee.”
In the meantime, consumers will just have to go back to, as Hall says, “drinking their drinks the oldfashioned way, and realizing how lovely it is to enjoy a drink with all your senses.”
For more information on Tofino’s Straws Suck campaign, visit SurfriderPacificRim’sFacebookpageat facebook.com/surfriderpacificrim.
Paper straws from The Cross Decor & Design. Paper ruled for decades until plastic came in vogue in the 1960s. The Surfrider Foundation is encouraging businesses to ban plastic straws to cut down on litter.