Woonsocket Call

Grasp­ing at plas­tic straw bans

Eco-friendly move against them gains ma­jor mo­men­tum

- By KATE KRADER and CHRIS ROVZAR

Be­fore you can say the words “plas­tic straw,” an­other ma­jor com­pany will have ditched them.

Last week, Bon Ap­petit Man­age­ment Co., a food ser­vice com­pany with more than 1,000 lo­ca­tions across the coun­try – from ball­parks to mu­se­ums – an­nounced that it would phase out the eco-un­friendly straws, ef­fec­tive im­me­di­ately. (Bon Ap­petit bought 16.8 mil­lion straws for the fis­cal year that ended Au­gust 2017, ac­cord­ing to USA To­day.)

The week be­fore, Alaska Air­lines said that it was ban­ning plas­tic ones, fol­low­ing an ini­tia­tive by a Girl Scout. (The air­line used 22 mil­lion of them in 2017.) Such cities as Van­cou­ver have banned them; so have Scot­land and Tai­wan. There are pro­posed bans for all of the U.K., the state of Hawaii, and New York City. Man­u­fac­tur­ers of plas­tic straws, dread­ing the eco­nomic im­pact, have re­sponded that the prob­lem is not the straws but their dis­posal. “The prob­lem is waste col­lec­tion and the lack of re­cy­cling,” Caro­line Wig­gins, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of U.K.-based Plas­tico told Money.

It’s hard to com­bat the apoc­a­lyp­tic sound bites, in­clud­ing an es­ti­mate that, by 2050, there will be more plas­tic in the ocean than fish, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 re­port from the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum. Some peo­ple date the start of the move­ment to the 2015 YouTube video of a tur­tle whose head was im­paled by a plas­tic straw, which has ac­cu­mu­lated more than 25 mil­lion views. Oth­ers credit the 2017 “Straw­less in Seat­tle” cam­paign with em­pow­er­ing ma­jor cities to take ac­tion. The un­nerv­ing vi­su­als of pol­luted beaches, as well as such fig­ures as the 5 mil­lion plas­tic straws Amer­i­cans use and dis­card each day, piled up in the pub­lic eye.

Now those plas­tic straws are be­ing dumped so speed­ily that eco-friendly re­place­ments have grown hard to come by.

Bans are al­ready af­fect­ing top New York cock­tail spots. One of the city’s splashiest new drink­ing es­tab­lish­ments is the Poly­ne­sian, from the Ma­jor Food Group that’s bet­ter known for such restau­rants as the Grill, the Pool, and Car­bone. Since the bar’s menu fea­tures col­or­ful, am­bi­tious drinks like the rum-in­fused Ex­ot­ica Bowl, served in a gi­ant clam shell, the staff faced an un­ex­pected chal­lenge. “Straws have been the hard­est task at the Poly­ne­sian,” says Gen­eral Man­ager Emily Collins. She nixed plas­tic straws be­cause of the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact. “Have you seen the tur­tle video?” she asks.

But when the team at­tempted to source cus­tom-made pa­per re­place­ments, the ones Collins wanted were al­ready back-or­dered for three months.

Tiki drinks al­most re­quire straws – the cock­tails tend to come in large, un­wieldy cups that are oth­er­wise chal­leng­ing to drink from. If they’re frozen or cov­ered in crushed ice, a bare mouth is just not a good ap­proach. Be­cause she couldn’t get pa­per straws in time, Collins went with a ver­sion fab­ri­cated from corn­starch, one of myr­iad eco-friendly op­tions out there, in­clud­ing bam­boo, metal, glass and hay. She doesn’t see the short­age end­ing soon. “With all the re­quests for non-plas­tic straws right now, it will con­stantly be an is­sue to sup­port the de­mand,” she says.

An­other new bar es­chew­ing plas­tic straws is the 18th Room. It high­lights a “no im­pact” cock­tail pro­gram; spent citrus rinds, for in­stance, are later in­cor­po­rated into shrub drinks. Owner Dave Oz sources gold-plated stain­less steel straws that match the bar’s art deco-style in­te­rior. He es­ti­mates they cost up to $2 each. But Oz sees them as cost ef­fec­tive: The hun­dreds he re­quires each night can largely be re-used after thor­ough wash­ing by hand. “It’s more of an up­front cost, since the metal straws are more ex­pen­sive – but it saves money in the long run, since you don’t need to re­sup­ply so of­ten,” he says.

One of the rel­a­tively early adopters to the plas­tic straw move­ment is Porch­light, the South­ern-in­spired bar in Hud­son Yards, from the Union

Square Hos­pi­tal­ity Group. Di­rec­tor Mark May­nard-Parisi was in­spired by Trash Tiki, a no-waste drinks move­ment that stages pop-ups around the world, mix­ing cock­tails with such prod­ucts as cor­dials dis­tilled with dis­carded wa­ter­melon rinds. “I re­al­ized we were giv­ing out straws, even for short drinks served on the rocks,” says May­nard-Parisi. In the se­cond half of 2017, Porch­light in­tro­duced a “straws on re­quest” pro­gram, driv­ing de­mand down 95 per­cent.

Porch­light also be­gan test­ing pa­per straws. “We got 20 dif­fer­ent sam­ples, put them in wa­ter glasses and let them sit,” May­nard-Parisi ex­plains. Dis­in­te­grat­ing pa­pers straws are a com­mon com­plaint about the eco-friendly trend. “The one that lasted the long­est – which was by far the most ex­pen­sive – was Aard­vark,” he adds. May­nard-Parisi es­ti­mates that plas­tic straws cost about half a penny, corn-based cost 2 cents, and pa­per straws cost around 4 cents. “Be­cause of straws on de­mand, our straw us­age has de­creased so dra­mat­i­cally, we can ab­sorb the cost,” he says. But he notes the im­pact of that price dif­fer­en­tial on a big­ger com­pany. “If you have to pay 3 cents for a straw and you’re Star­bucks, that adds up each day.”

When James Mur­phy, di­rec­tor of pur­chas­ing for Union Square Hos­pi­tal­ity Group, reached out to Aard­vark, a unit of Pre­ci­sion Prod­ucts Group Inc., he was told of a three-month wait. The email re­sponse also con­tained an au­to­mated sig­na­ture: “These are very ex­cit­ing times at Aard­vark as our prod­ucts are in very high de­mand from all over the world. Dur­ing this pe­riod of ex­treme growth, our lead times to ship have in­creased as fol­lows: 11 or fewer cases, two to three-plus weeks, and for 12 or more cases, 10 to 12 weeks. We thank you for your un­der­stand­ing and ad­vanced plan­ning as we go through these ‘grow­ing pains.’ New ca­pac­ity is be­ing added as quickly as pos­si­ble and we hope to re­turn to shorter lead times in the com­ing months.”

Danny Meyer, USHG’s CEO, might have added to the frenzy for al­ter­na­tive straws in mid-May when he tweeted: “One small step. Plan­ning to roll out biodegrad­able straws for all of @USHGNY restau­rants in next weeks.”

Meyer hasn’t tried dif­fer­ent straws for his com­pany’s dis­parate restau­rants (“I del­e­gate,” he says), but he knows that when he does, it isn’t go­ing to save the com­pany money. “My team has been ask­ing me to do this, and you want to ex­press that you hear them.” Meyer says he is “push­ing and push­ing” Shake Shack to change from plas­tic straws, which would rep­re­sent an ex­po­nen­tially higher vol­ume than the roughly 1 mil­lion straws USHG goes through an­nu­ally. “I can’t even give you a good rea­son why they haven’t changed it yet, ex­cept in­ven­tory and per­haps the milk­shake ques­tion,” adds Meyer, who founded the pub­licly traded com­pany.

An­other pop­u­lar U.S.-based pa­per straw sup­plier is Im­pe­rial Dade, which sup­plies 40,000 cus­tomers. “We have seen 100 per­cent in­crease in de­mand for pa­per straws in the last quar­ter,” says Laura Craven, di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the com­pany. “We are on a two-month wait list as a dis­trib­u­tor. De­mand is far out­pac­ing sup­ply.” Craven ex­pects de­mand to sky­rocket as more cities pass leg­is­la­tion. Its pa­per straws cost five times the price of sim­i­larly sized plas­tic straws. She sees the ma­jor driv­ers of the trend as cities in coastal ar­eas and the cruise in­dus­try.

An even big­ger con­sumer of plas­tic straws is the cof­fee in­dus­try. (It’s es­ti­mated that Star­bucks Corp. goes through 2 bil­lion plas­tic straws each year.) New York-based Joe’s cof­fee, which has 19 branches, an­nounced to Bloomberg that it will switch to PLA-bio-plas­tic, 100 per­cent com­postable-straws this year; it uses more than 1 mil­lion an­nu­ally. “The cost to us will be four times higher-a 25 per­cent cost of goods in­crease for Joe’s,” con­firms owner Jonathan Ruben­stein. He says there will not be a cor­re­spond­ing in­crease in the price of Joe’s cof­fee. “We see it as our re­spon­si­bil­ity to help lead in this space. … Al­ter­na­tive straws have come down to a more man­age­able cost,” he says.

Ad­di­tion­ally, for the month of July, Joe’s will do­nate 20 per­cent of all pro­ceeds from its spe­cialty in­stant cof­fee boxes to the Ocean Cleanup, which is de­vel­op­ing tech­nolo­gies to rid the oceans of plas­tic.

 ?? Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg ?? Used flex­i­ble drink­ing straws sit in a bin at the Coca-Cola fac­tory in Don­gen, Nether­lands.
Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg Used flex­i­ble drink­ing straws sit in a bin at the Coca-Cola fac­tory in Don­gen, Nether­lands.

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