Switch from plastic to other materials underway here
By Ann McCreary
Several local food and beverage purveyors are joining a worldwide campaign to curb waste and pollution by attacking a small but pernicious problem – plastic straws.
They are choosing not to offer straws in the drinks they sell, and if people request straws, they are offering alternatives to plastic.
Straws are only a tiny part of plastic pollution that dumps millions of tons of plastic trash into the world’s oceans every year. But for local people joining international efforts to reduce waste, those little plastic tubes are a starting place.
“As a society we tend to think it’s somebody else’s responsibility to take care of things for us,” said Missy LeDuc, co-owner of the Mazama Store. The store staff meets regularly to discuss ways to reduce waste, and decided to stop carrying plastic straws in January. The store provides alternatives to plastic for purchase, including bamboo, stainless steel and glass.
Blue Star Coffee Roasters in Twisp has recently replaced plastic straws with straws made from wheat hay, said co-owner Meg Donohue. “I have been totally inspired by other people’s efforts globally, nationally and locally to get rid of plastic straws,” Donohue said.
“We’re coming to this point where we’re starting to calculate the true cost of plastic, the true cost of petroleum products. We’re paying for them, the world is paying for them,” Donohue said.
In the United States alone, it’s estimated that people use more than 500 million straws a day. Because they are small and lightweight, straws often don’t make it into recycling bins, and when they do, they are too light to be processed by many recycling sorters. Many end up in the ocean, where they pollute the water and kill marine life.
“Studies say that by 2050 there is going to be more plastic than fish in the oceans. It’s alarming,” said Betsy Cushman, director of Methow Recycles. “It’s not just about straws, it’s about all single-use plastic.”
A growing number of campaigns around the world are encouraging people to stop using plastic straws for good. Through a campaign called “Strawless in Seattle,” plastic straws and plastic utensils were banned in Seattle beginning this month. The ban is expected to keep several million plastic straws from entering Seattle’s waste stream each month.
And just this week, Starbucks announced it would eliminate plastic straws from all its stores worldwide by 2020. The company said it uses 1 billion plastic straws a year in its cold beverages, but will replace them with recyclable strawless lids or straws made from other materials.
As local businesses have looked for ways to make their own impact, they’ve discovered it’s not that easy to find an alternative to the ubiquitous plastic straw.
“We’ve been looking for some kind of good alternative for the past year, and it’s kind of ridiculously hard to find,” Donohue said. “We tried out paper straws, but people didn’t like them, because they dissolve and get mushy.”
Compostable straws aren’t a solution here in the Methow Valley, because there isn’t a commercial composting facility available in our area, Donohue noted. “Compostable straws don’t degrade in water. They are part of the problem.”
Not long ago Donohue came across a company that makes straws out of wheat hay, and after getting good reviews from customers, Blue Star made the switch. “They are completely biodegradable, natural straw. It’s just a stalk of hay, which is pretty cool. I think it gives people joy.”
Like most alternatives to plastic, they are more expensive. Plastic straws cost about .03 cents apiece in bulk, and the hay straws cost 3-5 cents apiece. “It’s a lot more,” Donohue said. “We haven’t raised our prices, but we are definitely cognizant of it.”
Katie Jo Paz, who owns the Pony Espresso drive-through coffee stand in Winthrop, switched to paper straws earlier this summer, even though paper straws are about four times as expensive as plastic. She tried out different brands to determine which ones held out best.
“Most people are good with it,” she said. “They like that the change is coming. I think most of my local customers absolutely understand, because I feel like that’s the place we live – we’re trying to take care of the earth for future generations.”
And with the emphasis on eliminating plastic in Seattle and the new straw ban there, visitors from the west side are also accepting of paper instead of plastic, Paz said. She said she is also looking into changing to biodegradable cups, even though they will likely cost more. “By using those cups I hope people will be more apt to want to recycle,” she said.
Reusable straws and cups
A growing number of her customers are also bringing their own reusable straws and cups, Paz said. “I have some customers that use the same plastic cup I’ve given them. Sometimes I just rinse it out for them. I offer 50 cents off if someone brings their own cup in.”
In light of the many anti-plastic straw initiatives, Teresa Mitchell, co-owner of Rocking Horse Bakery in Winthrop, “dug in and started doing some research.” Eliminating straws isn’t going to solve the problem of plastic pollution in the oceans, but “is good in terms of heightening awareness,” she said.
Mitchell said she is continuing to search for viable, affordable alternatives to plastic straws, including paper straws. “The last I bought in bulk were shipped to us from China, and that isn’t particularly environmentally sensitive,” she said.
The bakery has paper straws for customers, and has used compostable straws. “We will probably go back to plastic straws and hold them back behind the counter, so people have to ask for them,” Mitchell said. She is also considering offering alternatives, like metal straws, for purchase.
LeDuc said the Mazama Store has been working to help people change their habits and bring their own reusable straws and containers for drinks, groceries and bulk food items sold at the store.
The store recently started an incentive program which allows people who bring their own cup, bag or jars to place a wooden nickel in one of five containers labeled with the name of a local nonprofit organization. The store will then make a financial donation to the nonprofits, LeDuc said.
Hard habit to break
But changing behavior isn’t easy, LeDuc said. “It’s so hard to change our habits. We’re a society that eats on the run, always eating in the car, drinking in the car. It’s a lifestyle that might have to change.”
In ongoing efforts to reduce plastic, the Mazama Store has stopped offering plastic bottled water, instead carrying water in boxes and aluminum, which are more likely to be recycled, Leduc said. The store doesn’t provide plastic bags for groceries and tries to offer store-made products in glass jars that can be returned. “That’s been challenging in terms of people taking on that responsibility,” LeDuc said.
Simply changing attitudes toward straws is a challenge, Donohue found. “People love straws for a number of reasons. They’re super attached to them, it’s a funny thing. They [like] the sensation when drinking out of them … and a lot of women drink out of short straws, so they don’t mess up their lipstick. For others, it’s a perception, for lack of a better word, of cleanliness.”
Cushman of Methow Recycles said it’s up to consumers as well as business owners to shift away from straws and other single-use plastic products. People can train themselves to keep a beverage container on hand and carry bags for shopping. And they can let businesses know they support efforts to reduce plastic.
“It’s funny – we don’t take charge when we’re a customer. If you don’t tell employees or business owners what’s important to you, they’ll do what’s easiest,” Cushman said. “It’s not just about this teeny little straw. We can’t recycle our way out of the mess we’re creating. We have to reduce our waste.”