Grasping at plastic straw bans
Eco-friendly move against them gains major momentum
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.