Move­ment to re­duce plas­tic lit­ter poses ques­tion: Why do we need th­ese things?

Vancouver Sun - - YOU - JOANNE SAS­VARI

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 face­­erpaci­ficrim.


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.

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