Sustainability 101

How Businesses Can Say No To Plastic Straws, And Get Ahead of Bans Coming Their Way

By Horia Varlan from Bucharest, Romania (Groups of drinking straws sorted by colors) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“Businesses that respond appropriately can lead the way before they are forced to comply with bans and regulations. This is not only good for the environment, it is also good for business.”

As reported in the New York Times, the U.S. uses millions of plastic straws every day!  After a few minutes of use, most end up polluting  the environment, clogging up oceans, killing marine life, eventually breaking down into microplastics that enter our food chain.

Before single-use plastic straws became ubiquitous, James Bernard, a Great Forest consultant based in San Francisco, remembers using paper straws as a boy.

James’s glass straws made by his grandfather.

“Paper straws were considered to be a way to get kids to drink more milk and juice, but I didn’t like the fact that they collapsed so my glassblower grandfather made me glass straws out of colored chemistry glass with bends in them that I still have,” says James. “Now, I’m seeing reusable glass straws selling for $10 apiece, so I’ve come full circle.”

Young James grew out of the thrill of making bubbles in his milk with his straws and his son was not provided with straws at home. The “last straw” for both father and son was seeing plastic straws rafting up on favorite beaches and showing up on the wilderness waterways they were paddling.

So now, James works to help Great Forest clients say no to plastic straws and find alternatives.

“The end of the throwaway society that began in the 1950s is in sight. People are recognizing that our dependence on plastics, particularly single-use items such as straws, is not sustainable. Plastic straws have become the poster child for unnecessary waste and their prohibition has become a rallying cry issue for those seeking action by lawmakers and businesses,” says James.

“Businesses that respond appropriately can lead the way before they are forced to comply with bans and regulations. This is not only good for the environment, it is also good for business.”

The Pressure Is On: Coming Bans And Policy Changes

Across the US: In New York City, a bill was just introduced in May by the City Council to outlaw plastic straws at eateries across the city.  Bans or laws limiting the use of plastic straws in restaurants are already in place in Seattle; Miami Beach and Fort Myers in Florida; and Davis, San Luis Obispo, and Malibu in California, with more to come in Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach. Fast Company just published a roundup of plastic straw bans.

Worldwide: In Europe, Britain announced a ban on the sale of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton swabs in April. At the end of May, the European Union proposed measures banning single-use plastics and reducing or altering the consumption and production of the top 10 plastic items most commonly found on beaches, including straws, cotton swabs, disposable cutlery and fishing gear. Meanwhile in Asia, Taiwan announced the strictest regulation yet, banning not only on plastic straws but also single-use plastic bags and cups.

But it is not just regulations. Businesses are beginning to feel the pressure from their consumers and investors.

Businesses: Starbucks became the latest corporation to announce that it will be eliminating plastic straws from its 28,000 stores by 2020. They follow food management company Bon Appetit, which has banned plastic straws and stirrers at more than 1,000 of its restaurants across the U.S. (the company said it purchased 16.8 million plastic straws and 420,000 plastic stirrers in 2017). McDonald’s is saying no to plastic straws in its 1,300 stores in the UK.

Besides food service outlets, many businesses in the hospitality industry, such as hotels, are also preparing themselves for regulations to come.  The New York Times reports that big hotel chains are now just catching up to independent hotels, many of which do not provide straws.  Anantara hotels, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Taj Hotels, AccorHotels, and Marriott are among the major hotel brands that reportedly have or will soon have plastic straw bans in place.

Better Alternatives

While glass straws may not be practical or cost-effective in most business establishments, James points out that there are better alternatives to plastic straws out there including straws made out of:

  • plant-based plastics (PLA), which are marketed as compostable/biodegradable
  • bamboo
  • steel
  • and even straws made out of straw!

We even came across one hotel in Belize offering guests pasta noodles for use as straws! What a great idea!

Businesses can also market branded reusable steel tumblers or even reusable plastic cups with straws built in as a more long-term sustainable alternative.

Move Away From Plastic Straws in 3 Steps

So what should you do?

Great Forest has been assisting businesses across the country to take the lead on how to best handle single-use plastic straws and find viable alternatives. Here is how businesses can start saying no to plastic straws.

1) Start With This Quick Fix

While the switch to a plastic straw alternative may take time to implement and get right, there is one thing that any business can do immediately and easily, and that is to put in place a “straws upon request” policy. This will immediately reduce the number of plastic straws in circulation.

“This is a great way to start and see immediate positive results. A number of our hotel clients have already put this policy into practice with great success. You’ll find that many people will be just as happy to drink straight from their glass,  bottle or can, while customers who need straws can still get them. This will quickly diminish the demand for single-use plastic straws,” says James.

2) Look For Alternatives That Work For Your Business

Which plastic straw alternative works best for your business depends on a number of factors, including cost, available suppliers, the number of straws your business uses, and even the recycling options in your location.

PLA straws, for example, may be a problematic sorting challenge for some hotels as they look just like the plastic straws that guests bring back to the hotel. Moreover, PLA straws appear to be  slow to break down. According to the Better Alternatives Now report, PLA straws “remained unchanged in all environments after two years.”  They do, however, break down in the production of standard, 90-day commercial compost. While some PLA straws may be biodegradable, PLA straws do not degrade quickly enough to be composted in San Francisco, where industrial organic compost using windrows with high internal temperatures is made in 45 days.

While straws made of hay, rye and wheat sound wonderfully organic, they may be a concern to some because of allergies. Paper straws are always a good alternative but some have a plastic lining.

“Businesses can price out alternatives, research their performance,  check out procurement options, and figure out which alternative works for best for their needs based on a variety of factors in order to make an informed decision,” says James.

3) Educate

Part of the process is to educate staff, hotel guests, and consumers. Even though plastic pollution is in the news now, you will want to explain what you are doing to highlight the positive change and encourage participation.  You can even spread the news through social media using hashtags like #StrawsSuck and #TheLastStraw.

Businesses still using single-use plastic straws should address the right way to handle them, while they explore ways to make the switch. For example, in San Francisco, if you leave the straw in the plastic top that coffee and juice bars provide, it can go through the processing system at Recology SF’s Recycle Central. By themselves, plastic straws can jam the sorting machinery. 

Of course this is not possible everywhere.  But in places where plastic straws can be recycled, make sure they are handled the correct way so that they indeed do get recycled. Some companies even take back straws for recycling.

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Need help saying no to plastic straws? Call your Great Forest representative now or email us at info@greatforest.com

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