Across the country, restaurants have taken a stand against plastic straws. Starbucks has vowed to up its straw-less lid game by 2020 as many other companies also try to address environmental concerns.
“Generally speaking, the impact of single-use plastics and Styrofoam – or any other non-biodegradable product – is rather significant,” says Erin Hatfield, communications director for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. “As these products do not break down, they ultimately find their way to landfills or, unfortunately, our lakes, streams, rivers and oceans. It is important to also remember that storm drains don’t receive any treatment; therefore, anything that washes off city streets goes directly into our natural bodies of water.”
Hatfield says her department’s Land Protection Division recently had a cleanup at Lake Arcadia and found a shocking amount of straws, plastic foam and other plastics in the water and on surrounding land.
“Switching to other types of straws, be it paper, glass or other reusable materials, could have a positive effect on the environment,” she says. “Any time you replace single-use, non-biodegradable items with reusable, degradable products, you are diverting material from the waste stream and potentially reducing litter.”
Many consumers assume that an easy answer is to recycle plastic straws. Shavara Johnson, recycle facilitator for Keep Oklahoma Beautiful, says this isn’t a viable, long-term option.
“Plastic straws are very hard to recycle because of their size and … that they are so lightweight, which causes them to drop through the sorting screens,” she says. “My biggest issue with plastic, and what should be everyone else’s, is … that it does not ever fully biodegrade. Single-use plastic breaks into tiny and tinier pieces, but never fully goes away. Then it is ingested by marine and land animals, which eventually we eat. Even if someone isn’t a meat eater, the plastic particles get into our soil, affecting plant growth and slowly working their way into our water.”
A Tulsa business taking the plunge toward sustainable drinking options is the McNellie’s Group. Jessica Gibson-Conlon, training and hospitality coordinator, says McNellie’s always looks for ways to reduce its environmental footprint and eliminate waste. She says several staff members have specific concerns about the impact of plastic straws on wildlife.
“Plastic straw waste is bulky, potentially dangerous and essentially permanent,” Gibson-Conlon says. “We need healthy oceans to offer diverse menus in our restaurants. Significantly cutting down on this pollutant is an investment in tomorrow, not today.”
Restaurants in the McNellie’s Group offer straws only upon request. The hope, Gibson-Conlon says, is to secure access to paper straws – difficult because of increased demand across the country. She says McNellie’s has received positive feedback.
“This is a new initiative for us, so we’re not yet certain of the long-term impact,” she says, “but the support we’ve seen from the community and our peers in the industry suggests this is a trend we’ll see around for a long time.”
Meanwhile, she says many customers act on their own to reduce the use of plastic straws.
“We’ve started to see a lot more guests bringing in their own reusable straws, which are inexpensive and widely available,” she says.
Johnson approves of this approach.
“The benefit of switching to long-term use materials is crucial,” she says. “Regarding the plastic straw debacle, there are so many cool, new alternatives like paper straws and bamboo straws, both of which are fully compostable. There also are the options of glass straws and steel straws, which are longer lasting and can be cleaned and carried around.”
Slowing consumption of single-use plastic straws is essential if humans are to prevent further damage to the planet, she says.
“If more people switch to items that are not plastic-based and created for single use, we can slow the amount of plastic that is still going into production and lessen our impact on our earth by not adding to the … plastic that is already here to stay,” Johnson says. “Just to put into perspective how many plastic straws we use … in North America alone: 500 million per day, which is enough to wrap around the earth’s circumference 2.5 times a day. That’s insane. The plastic straw specifically is to blame for the death of 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals per year.”
Some groups have concerns about how eliminating single-use plastic straws can affect certain consumers, such as those with disabilities. Reusable straws made of silicon and steel, along with temporary solutions like paper straws, pose dangers to some disabled consumers. In addition, some people with disabilities cannot consume any liquids without straws.
Gibson-Conlon says restaurants such as McNellie’s make sure that all patrons have safe, convenient drinking options.
“We will always do everything we can to meet the needs of our guests, including keeping a stock of plastic straws on hand for any guest who needs one,” she says. “We’re also happy to make accommodations regarding ice [and] drink temperatures for anyone inconvenienced by the absence of a conventional straw.”
The plastic straw presents a problem requiring compromise, and it isn’t as simple as swapping for another method or doing away with it completely. Johnson says collaboration and resolution can happen.
“We as a community, state, nation and world need to continue to stay informed, desire information to be shared, and be comfortable with making changes,” she says. “Plastic is going to be here longer than we are, and some may say it’s ‘not their problem,’ but it truly is everyone’s problem. Only together can we really find and create a long-lasting solution, one that will beat out the 500 years plastic will be here.”