What the Plastic Straw Controversy Means for Bars

The seemingly innocuous plastic straw has found itself at the center of a greater cultural war

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Sep 12 2018, 9:00pm

Image via Getty Images. 

The drinking straw’s history runs parallel to humanity’s: from ancient libation to fast food, mint julep to ice cream float. It has helped those who otherwise find drinking difficult (notably children, the elderly, and the physically impaired), allowed us to circumnavigate crushed ice, and been fashioned from everything from paper to gold. The straw is a symbol associated with ritual, delicacy, and fun, and like so many symbols, it has been a small piece in a greater culture war that is itself a small part of a much greater and more dire conflict.

If you’ve been in the world of food and beverage for a while, you’ll probably remember when the straw was a mundane necessity, mostly unconsidered. They were ubiquitous and they were plastic and those, of course, were the problems. If you haven’t, you might have been caught unaware by the steady drift of opinion surrounding the straw. One day you may have ordered a scotch and soda, and only when it was halfway down your throat did you notice that not only did you not have a straw—there wasn’t a straw in sight.

“If you think about the greater picture of carbon footprint, straws are a kind of a small component, not like the most engaging way for us to be engaging with environmental issues as a community. But I think it does have a benefit,” says Claire Sprouse, whose company Tin Roof Community consults and provides conservation education for the beverage industry. “People are like, ‘who cares about straws, ; it’s not that big of a deal,’ but it’s has a benefit of being a great public public-facing way that we show that we are thinking about these things. It’s something you can have a discussion with guests about if they so choose.”

The anti-straw movement did not come out of a vacuum. Environmentalists had have long been critical of the proliferation of non-biodegradable plastic, especially single single-use items like plastic bags, six-pack rings, and those ubiquitous straws. In 2011, nine-year-old Milo Cress began “Be Straw Free,” a campaign that suggested Americans used 500 million drinking straws daily. The figure was widely cited but has been generally challenging to verify. Since then, straw bans were championed by groups such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, which asked business owners to pledge to eliminate plastic straw use. In 2018 Seattle became the first American city to [RB1] ban plastic straws (with San Francisco following suit shortly thereafter), and California became the first state to regulate their distribution by bars and restaurants.

And so what’s next? It’s tempting, of course, to see the straw as a dwindling, vestigial symptom of the twentieth century. Bars with media presence are likely to have found alternatives already. Forgoing straws entirely is challenging—since the days of the mint julep, crushed ice-based and slushy drinks have required them, customers often demand them even when they’re unnecessary, and there’s a real argument to be made that not carrying straws at all is ableist. Plastic alternatives can be tricky for people who depend on straws for medical reasons. Bars with serious cocktail programs often run through several straws per drink because bartenders use them to taste-test cocktails during preparation.

Options are limited.

First, it’s important to note that many polypropylene straws are technically recyclable. Sorting them into the recycling can often be a challenge in a busy restaurant, but assuming they make it into the plastics bin, they will often be retrieved (depending on your locale and waste management system) curbside.

“Something like forty percent of recyclable materials make it to recycling facilities,” says Sprouse. “In New York, straws and plastic bags are really bad for recycling centers because they’re so lightweight that they don’t make it through the process often. They end up gumming up the machines or flying around the facilities until they fly out.”

A step up are reusable plastic straws, such as those available from Cocktail Kingdom. They’re made of the same stuff as the everyday kind, but can be sanitized for reuse. That said, they tend to be a challenge for cleaning due to their thin structure and relative light weight. The good news about these is they’re heavier than the single-use kind for theoretical recycling purposes.

Reusable plastic straws are really a cheaper version of the metal julep straws that have been around for over a century (and are now available in other materials, like high-strength glass. These sort of straws are extremely expensive, and you probably won’t see them outside the rare, literal julep in the fanciest of cocktail bars (and even then they often walk out in a customer’s pocket.)

The original go-to for a lot of restaurants and bars in the wake of the anti-straw campaign was disposable straws produced from other “green” materials, the majority of which were made from “bio-plastics,” aka organic resins. Many of these are sold as compostable, which is technically true, but more often than not only through commercial composting services, which are not widely available in the US. Your home composting won’t do it, and most of them end up in a landfill (or ocean at worst), where they take about five years to break down.

While cheap paper straws are often maligned for their quick drink life, quality paper straws do exist. Aardvark Straws was owned until recently by Precision Products, which finds its heritage traced back to the original paper straw patent in the U.S. The anti-plastic straw movement has been good for the paper straw business, especially Aardvark’s heavy-duty straws, for which demand has been high. There are also currently companies sustainably producing straws from avocado waste and wheat—and some cocktail bars have gotten clever with cocktail tasting by implementing long, tubular pasta instead.

Most reasonable people can agree that straws are both necessary and overused, and should be dealt with responsibly by bars and restaurants. It’s certainly not the end-all issue in contemporary conservation and ecology, but it’d be nice to be enjoy a highball with a little less guilt. At best, to talk over what’s next. At worst, it’s the perfect drink while the world burns.

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