Finding a plastic straw in a drink is about as normal and mundane as getting a plastic fork or pack of soy sauce with your Chinese takeout. What’s more, it’s not uncommon to get two teensy straws in a cocktail to mix your drink while you sip. How else are you expected to suck down that frosty Tom Collins or keep that White Russian perfectly blended?
But, when it comes down to it, most of us probably wouldn’t even notice if that plastic straw suddenly disappeared. Many of us would even be glad. Admit it: They’re often more of a nuisance than they are a help. And when your drink’s finished, the straw is thrown in the trash, never to be seen again.
Or so you thought.
The seemingly benign object isn’t so innocuous after all. It’s one of the most wasteful and potentially damaging plastic objects used by bars and restaurants, thrown out after a single use and unable to be recycled or composted. The United States alone consumes—and discards—nearly 500 million straws each day. As the National Parks Service points out, that’s enough to fill 125 school buses.
Luckily, it might not be long before plastic straws are passé in bars—for all the right reasons.
Two years ago, some particularly gruesome footage went viral. The video, which currently has more than 14 million views on YouTube, shows a group of researchers using pliers to slowly extract a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nostril as it sneezes repeatedly and bleeds.
It’s hard to watch, but as researcher Chris Figgener, who was present during the filming of the video, notes on her GoFundMe page, “No biologist, regardless of his or her location, is actively seeking out injured wildlife as seen in my video. But [...] we are consistently witnessing the byproducts of human consumerism, and its consequences.”
Because straws are made of polypropylene, a byproduct of petroleum, they never degrade. Nor can they be recycled. That means they’re headed straight to a landfill or, as is often the case, into the environment where they break down into smaller and smaller fragments over time.
“Just because you responsibly use an item and throw it away or recycle it doesn’t mean that it’s not necessarily going to get into the marine environment through the waste management system, and what we call leakage,” says Lippiatt. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), straws are one of the top 10 plastic items found littering marine environments.
“In 2016, during the one day cleanup worldwide, volunteers found and reported 409,087 straws,” says Sherry Lippiatt, California Regional Coordinator of the NOAA Marine Debris Program. She also points to a study done by the NOAA that found that a staggering 660 species of marine life had been affected by debris and that “a significant majority have been confirmed to ingest marine debris, primarily plastics.”
Lippiatt adds that researchers are still quantifying the risk straws pose to habitats of marine life. “But just knowing that they’re one of the most common items that are found and documented during monitoring efforts, it is an item of concern,” she says.
As it turns out, bartenders across the country are taking note and making moves to reduce the amount of plastic waste their watering holes produce, instituting bans on plastic straws and encouraging dialogue throughout the industry and with customers.
“We realized the impact plastic has on our water, soil, air, animals and our bodies, so we decided to minimize our use of plastic and toxic materials,” says Naama Tamir, owner of Lighthouse in Brooklyn and one of the early adopters of a plastic straw ban, along with a number of other sustainable bar practices. She stopped using plastic straws in her bar in 2012, but she hasn’t, however, done away with straws completely. Instead, she’s started using metal straws, which can be washed and reused rather than discarded.
“Guests definitely react to the metal straws, and we make a point to share our efforts for mindful actions when people express curiosity,” she says. “It's our way to educate and further the green agenda in an organic and conversational way.”
Dozens of other establishments have since followed suit. Well-known bars like Pouring Ribbons, Sunday in Brooklyn, Jimmy’s Aspen, Westbound, The Penrose, Bar Goto and Freehold Brooklyn have switched to paper or reusable straws.
On the West Coast, entire cities have even implemented full bans plastic straws or enacted soft bans (meaning bars and restaurants are permitted to give out straws only if requested by a customer). In Summer 2018, Seattle’s ban on plastic straws will take effect thanks to the Strawless in Seattle movement, though some places have already made the switch to reusable or biodegradable materials.
Chicago is also considering a full ban, and the practice is catching on in a number of New York and Philadelphia bars, as well as with plenty of other eco-conscious bartenders in smaller cities nationwide and overseas.
Renowned chef and restaurant owner Edward Lee stopped using straws in all of his Louisville and Washington D.C. establishments, including MilkWood and 610 Magnolia, in summer 2016. “We have paper straws on hand but only by request from customer,” says Lee, adding that this is just one of the first steps he’s taking to make his bar more environmentally friendly. He’s also getting rid of bottled water.
Some places have also made do with no straws at all—paper or otherwise. Scott Koehl, beverage director of DMK Restaurants in Chicago, did away with plastic straws for all the bars he manages this past summer. Instead of finding a replacement, he says, “We've adapted how we serve drinks in order to make them less dependent on straws.” That includes serving fewer drinks with crushed ice, which often require straws, and creating more drinks in short glasses that are easier to sip from, rather than tall and narrow Collins glasses.
The change came after one of DMK’s restaurants, Fish Bar, helped fund a study at the city’s Shedd Aquarium.
“The results of straws’ impact on the environment and marine life was shocking to us,” he says. “I think this is a trend that will not just affect the bar community but businesses in general will have to adapt to these preferences as people start to care how our consumption affects the planet's future.”
Though the problems facing the environment—and particularly the oceans—are concerning, bartenders are taking pains to do what they can and to educate the community.
This past summer, the annual Tales of the Cocktail conference, which draws in thousands of bar professionals from around the world, hosted its first Sustainability Summit, where plastic straws were one of the hot topics discussed by event moderators Chad Arnholt and Claire Sprouse of the Tin Roof Drink Community.
Spirits company Rémy Cointreau also took a stand this past summer when it partnered with the Lonely Whale Foundation and Tamir’s Lighthouse for an Instagram campaign called #stopsucking.