Busi­ness: Last straw for many restau­rants.

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By Fenit Ni­rap­pil

WASH­ING­TON » Warn­ing let­ters in hand, Zach Ry­bar­czyk pa­trolled the food court at Union Sta­tion, look­ing for of­fend­ers.

Past Aun­tie Anne’s, past Johnny Rock­ets. At Lotus Ex­press, a Chi­nese food joint, Ry­bar­czyk peeled the wrap­per from a red straw and bent the end — the tell­tale give­away. Plas­tic.

Wash­ing­ton has be­come the lat­est city in a na­tion­wide move­ment to ban plas­tic straws, and it’s up to Ry­bar­czyk, an in­spec­tor for the D.C. Depart­ment of En­ergy and En­vi­ron­ment, to en­force the new law.

In Septem­ber, Gover­nor Jerry Brown signed into law a first-of-its-kind bill aimed at re­duc­ing straw waste. Start­ing this year, sit-down restau­rants here won’t serve drinks with straws. Cus­tomers who want one will have to ask for it.

In Wash­ing­ton, the straw cop left the rat­tled cashier at Lotus Ex­press with a warn­ing that if the store was still us­ing plas­tic straws by July, when a grace pe­riod ex­pires, it could be fined up to $800.

Nine years af­ter the Dis­trict in­sti­tuted a nickel bag tax and three years af­ter it banned plas­tic foam food con­tain­ers, it has turned on plas­tic straws — the new­est tar­get of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists try­ing to re­duce mil­lions of tons of plas­tic that ends up in trees, wa­ter­ways and in the bel­lies of wildlife. The ef­fort has been gal­va­nized by a vi­ral video of a sea tur­tle with a straw stuck in its nos­tril.

“It’s pretty ab­surd the amount of re­sources we put into creat­ing plas­tic ma­te­ri­als that we are us­ing for five min­utes to an hour, and then never again,” said Julie Law­son, di­rec­tor of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s Of­fice of the Clean City. “Sin­gleuse plas­tics are tak­ing the same cul­tural place as to­bacco where it’s so­cially un­ac­cept­able.”

Straws and the Dis­trict have a long his­tory; the mod­ern drink­ing straw was born in Wash­ing­ton in 1888, when in­ven­tor Marvin Ch­ester Stone re­ceived the first patent for an “ar­ti­fi­cial straw” made from pa­per and pro­duced them in his fac­tory on F Street NW.

Over the next cen­tury, the straw evolved from straight to bend­able, from pa­per to plas­tic.

But the pop­u­lar­ity of the plas­tic straw, and its in­abil­ity to de­com­pose, is prov­ing to be its un­do­ing.

City of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that plas­tic straws make up less than 1 per­cent of the trash in the Ana­cos­tia and Po­tomac rivers. Still, they pose a prob­lem. Their thin de­sign makes them too small for most re­cy­cling ma­chin­ery, so they end up in trash and ul­ti­mately in wa­ter­ways. Vol­un­teers col­lected 10,000 plas­tic straws dur­ing the 30th an­nual Po­tomac River Wa­ter­shed Cleanupin April.

“Plas­tic pol­lu­tion that ends up on the street is car­ried by rain wa­ter into storm drains and even­tu­ally into streams and rivers,” Laura Cat­tell Noll of the Alice Fer­gu­son Foun­da­tion, a lo­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal group, told the D.C. Coun­cil. “In many cases, this storm wa­ter is un­treated, leav­ing lo­cal wa­ter­ways choked with plas­tic bags, Sty­ro­foam, plas­tic bot­tles and plas­tic straws.”

The plas­tics in­dus­try has been push­ing for re­duced use in­stead of a ban.

“We don’t think the ban is the right ap­proach be­cause it ends up sub­sti­tut­ing one ma­te­rial for an­other,” said Keith Christ­man, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of plas­tics mar­kets for the Amer­i­can Chem­istry Coun­cil, which rep­re­sents plas­tics man­u­fac­tur­ers. “What we need to do here is re­duce waste and not take a straw when you don’t need one.”

The Dis­trict is among at least 15 ju­ris­dic­tions that have out­lawed plas­tic straws, in­clud­ing Seat­tle, Mon­mouth Beach, N.J., and a string of coastal cities in south­ern Florida and Cal­i­for­nia, in­clud­ing San Fran­cisco. There are no statewide bans, al­though Cal­i­for­nia re­quires restau­rants to serve straws only at cus­tomers’ re­quest. An in­creas­ing num­ber of cor­po­ra­tions, in­clud­ing Star­bucks, Mar­riott and Amer­i­can Air­lines, are vol­un­tar­ily phas­ing out plas­tic straws.

The ef­fort in the Dis­trict has been pushed along by Dan Si­mons, co-owner of the Farm­ers Restau­rant Group.

Si­mons never stocked plas­tic straws at his seven restau­rants, in­clud­ing the flag­ship Found­ing Farm­ers in Foggy Bot­tom, pre­fer­ring bio­plas­tic straws that are sup­posed to de­com­pose.

But when he stuck a bio­plas­tic straw in a con­tainer of salt wa­ter for six months and it didn’t change, he was con­vinced that they, too, have draw­backs.

Last spring, Si­mons formed Our Last Straw, a coali­tion of D.C.-area restau­rants, bars, ho­tels, event venues and or­ga­ni­za­tions to lobby for an end to sin­gle-use plas­tic straws. He said it was rel­a­tively easy to per­suade oth­ers to join.

“When you are re­ally get­ting into dis­cus­sions with peo­ple on this topic and you look at pho­tos and videos about the amount of trash in the ocean, this is just so log­i­cal and ob­vi­ous that hu­man be­hav­ior needs to change,” Si­mons said.

He ar­gued that the added cost of al­ter­na­tives to plas­tic could be off­set if restau­rants use less.

“If you spend twice as much but use half as many, the math is pretty sim­ple,” Si­mons said.

At Union Sta­tion dur­ing the first week of Jan­uary, when the ban took ef­fect, many din­ing spots on the main level had al­ready switched to com­postable straws. But in the base­ment food court, Ry­bar­czyk drew blank stares from cashiers who had no idea about the ban.

At Lotus Ex­press, the in­spec­tor, one of three dis­patched by the city to check cafe­te­rias, bars and restau­rants, scrib­bled the restau­rant’s name on the pa­per sleeve of the plas­tic straw and tucked it into his back pocket, along with two oth­ers from scofflaw restau­rants. He planned to later check whether they floated in wa­ter, an­other tell­tale sign of pro­hib­ited plas­tic.

“Ob­vi­ously there will be some hold­outs un­til July, when we start is­su­ing fines. But it’s most fair to give busi­nesses a heads up,” said Ry­bar­czyk, who keeps a metal straw for his per­sonal use in his back­pack.

At Sakura Ja­pan, Ry­bar­czyk ex­plained the new rules to a cashier as a man wait­ing for his lunch looked on in dis­gust.

“What, is this Cal­i­for­nia now?” grum­bled the cus­tomer, who de­clined to give his name. “All these laws are just spread­ing from Cal­i­for­nia. Ev­ery­thing is get­ting taken away from us, man. This is so stupid.”

In 2014, D.C. law­mak­ers banned dis­pos­able food ser­vice items that can’t be re­cy­cled or com­posted, but the city’s Depart­ment of En­ergy and En­vi­ron­ment re­leased guid­ance say­ing plas­tic straws were ac­cept­able to use.

D.C. Coun­cil mem­bers Mary M. Cheh, D, and Jack Evans, D, sought to cor­rect that last year by ex­plic­itly out­law­ing plas­tic straws, but the Bowser ad­min­is­tra­tion beat them to the punch, ad­ding plas­tic straws and stir­rers to the list of banned food con­tain­ers and uten­sils that in­cludes plas­tic foam boxes and foil-lined deli pa­per.

Bars and food es­tab­lish­ments in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal have been re­plac­ing plas­tic with straws made from pa­per, hay, bam­boo or corn­starch.

“Hon­estly, we have not heard one com­plaint,” said Kathy Hollinger, who leads the Restau­rant As­so­ci­a­tion of Metropoli­tan Wash­ing­ton. “Our folks will tell us pretty quickly if there’s a big im­pact on their bot­tom line, and we have not heard that with this is­sue.”

At Blue Bot­tle Cof­fee in Union Sta­tion, man­ager Derek Henry as­sured Ry­bar­czyk that the store has been us­ing straws made of veg­etable ma­te­rial for four years.

“Ev­ery prod­uct we give a guest is com­postable. It’s been one of our core val­ues,” Henry said, al­though he ac­knowl­edged the straws end up in the trash be­cause Union Sta­tion doesn’t of­fer com­post­ing.

Busi­ness is boom­ing for man­u­fac­tur­ers of straws made from eco-friendly al­ter­na­tives to plas­tic.

Or­ders have gone up so much for In­di­ana-based Aard­vark Straws — which has made pa­per straws for more than a decade — that there is a six-to-eightweek back­log, and the com­pany needed to open a new man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity.

As New York City con­sid­ers a plas­tic-straw ban, Aard­vark Straws wants it to hold off un­til 2020.

“All these bans just started hit­ting at once,” said David Rhodes, global busi­ness di­rec­tor for Aard­vark. “The last thing we want to do is start a move­ment and be in a po­si­tion that we can’t meet the de­mand.”

One chal­lenge fac­ing D.C. restau­rants, bars and cof­fee shops: What to do with out­lawed plas­tic straws?

On the first day the law took ef­fect, a Star­bucks store down­town threw away large bags filled with straws, a move that seemed to de­feat the pur­pose of the ban.

The D.C. Depart­ment of En­ergy and En­vi­ron­ment ad­vises busi­nesses to keep a small stock of plas­tic straws for cus­tomers with dis­abil­i­ties who need them, while re­turn­ing the rest to a sup­plier or send­ing them to busi­nesses in Mary­land or Vir­ginia.

The is­sue came up in Seat­tle when ac­tivists her­alded a restau­rant that vol­un­tar­ily ditched plas­tic straws be­fore the ban took ef­fect — only to re­al­ize that restau­rant just gave the straws to a bar across the street.

“It was a re­minder to us to not use them all up and not just throw them out,” said Dune Ives, the Seat­tle-based ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Lonely Whale, a non­profit de­voted to elim­i­nat­ing plas­tic straws. “If we are go­ing to do the best pos­si­ble job we can, we have to get these straws out of the waste stream.”

Ives has been col­lect­ing straws from busi­nesses and has thou­sands pil­ing up in her base­ment. She plans to ship them to a Nether­lands com­pany that makes fur­ni­ture out of plas­tic.

In the Dis­trict, Si­mons wants Our Last Straw to act as a re­pos­i­tory for plas­tic straws from other busi­nesses. He hopes to cut a deal with a re­cy­cling fa­cil­ity to ac­cept a large ship­ment of straws at once, avoid­ing the prob­lems of thin ones be­ing lost in equip­ment dur­ing ma­te­rial sort­ing.

“I cer­tainly don’t want to see them go in the trash,” Si­mons said.

Some con­ser­va­tives and restau­rant-go­ers say it’s heavy­handed to tar­get plas­tic straws when they aren’t a lead­ing source of pol­lu­tion.

But en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists say straw bans can raise aware­ness about the big­ger plas­tic pol­lu­tion prob­lem.

“Soon, it will be Our Last Plas­tic Fork,” Si­mons said. “It’s re­ally an item-by-item, sin­gleuse plas­tic re­duc­tion and re­place­ment strat­egy.”

“Ob­vi­ously there will be some hold­outs un­til July, when we start is­su­ing fines. But it’s most fair to give busunesses a heads up.”

— Zach Ry­bar­czyk, Wash­ing­ton’s Depart­ment of En­ergy and En­vi­ron­ment in­spec­tor


The Union Sta­tion Star­bucks in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., uses straws that meet the re­quire­ments of the D.C. Depart­ment of En­ergy and En­vi­ron­ment’s new plas­tic straw ban. Restau­rants could be fined up to $800un­der the new law that bans plas­tic straws.

Zach Ry­bar­czyk, who works for the D.C. Depart­ment of En­ergy and En­vi­ron­ment, writes the name of a Union Sta­tion restau­rant on the sleeve of a plas­tic straw.


D.C. Depart­ment of En­ergy and En­vi­ron­ment in­spec­tor Zach Ry­bar­czyk lets an em­ployee of Cava in Wash­ing­ton D.C.’s Union Sta­tion know that the restau­rant passed the straw in­spec­tion.

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