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The last straw: Moving past disposable plastic spurs companies to innovate

September 12, 2018 at 12:00 PM

At many businesses, plastic straws are on their way out. (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

Here’s what bartender Todd Thrasher wants to know: How often do you use a straw at home?

A veteran bartender and bar owner who is about to launch Potomac Distilling Co. on Washington’s Southwest Waterfront, Thrasher thinks straws are simply unnecessary to the drinking experience. “I haven’t had plastic straws available behind the bar for seven years,” he says, “but people still ask for them every day.”

Related: [Ready to kick the plastic straw habit? We tested 8 reusable options to determine which is the best.]

In an effort to address concerns about how these once-beloved tubes are littering our streets and waterways, companies such as Starbucks, McDonald’s and Alaska Airlines and such municipalities as Monmouth Beach, N.J., have rallied to ban or limit their use. Starbucks not only developed new “sippy cup” style strawless lids, the company has also been test-marketing paper straws at it stores in Santa Cruz, Calif., for well over a year. But don’t fret about how you’ll enjoy that frosty Frappuccino, as some type of plastic straw will likely still be available upon request.

Once upon a time, we swooned over the 1950s-era images of clean-cut teenagers gazing at each other adoringly over the top of a root beer float, each sipping contentedly on a straw — a more acceptable way, perhaps, of swapping spit in a time before the sexual revolution. The flexible — or “bendy” — straw was invented by a doting father and inventor, whose daughter was struggling to slurp a milkshake through a straight straw. The origins of the first straw itself are perhaps slightly less wholesome: a Washington resident, Marvin Stone, is credited with inventing a paraffin-coated paper straw in 1888 so that he could better enjoy a mint julep after work.

Starbucks announced in July that it plans to phase out plastic straws worldwide by 2020. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Stone probably had no idea that his quest to quaff his bourbon more quickly would have such far-reaching implications. Varying estimates show that Americans now go through anywhere from 170 million to 500 million plastic straws daily. They’re taking over landfills, washing up on our beaches and clogging the intestines of sea life.

To add insult to injury, every time a Real Housewife sucks chardonnay through a straw so as not to mar her carefully applied vermillion lipstick, somewhere a sommelier softly sobs in the wine cellar. Margaritas rimmed with salt arrive at the table adorned with a straw, despite the fact that the taste of salt against the tang of lime and earthiness of tequila is such an integral part of the flavor experience. We may not use straws often at home, but they are ever-present when we are out and about on the streets, sipping on iced coffee while texting.

Related: [How to break your plastic, foil and paper addiction in the kitchen]

But when Potomac Distilling opens its doors this fall, Thrasher, a longtime scuba diver who is passionate about ocean conservation, is taking a new approach: Customers who insist upon straws in their drinks can purchase them for a quarter apiece, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the Sea Turtle Conservancy in Florida.

“Honestly,” he says, “I think plastic bags are worse, because I’ve seen plastic bags floating by while diving in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but anything we can do to help reduce plastic use is worth it. I know I’m going to catch a lot of flak for this, but I can take it.”

One reason that straw-banning businesses are facing criticism is because of serious concerns within the disability community about the dwindling availability of single-use plastic straws, which could hurt those who depend on them as a hygienic tool for ingesting both solids and liquids.

For disabled people, straws are not just a luxury. (Marccophoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

“This is a very real issue,” says Kathryn Carroll, a policy analyst with the Center for Disability Rights in Albany, N.Y. “People need to know that when you place restrictions on accessibility to plastic straws, it does affect others. It’s been disheartening to see some people be dismissive about it.” Among the concerns being cited is that of possible bacterial contamination in straws fashioned from alternative materials like metal or glass, or allergic reactions that could come from biodegradable straws made with vegetable fiber.

Related: [Plastic straw bans are the latest policy to forget the disability community]

The sudden downfall of the plastic straw is causing a sea change within the industry and spurring innovation that could appease the disability community. At Symphony Environmental Technologies, a U.K.-based company which specializes in the development of degradable plastics, one solution may lie in an additive, designed to reduce the molecular structure of the plastic so that it can safely biodegrade into the environment. Straw manufacturers can simply mix the additive into their existing formulas, and it can even be custom designed to degrade at a certain rate, says Symphony CEO Michael Laurier. “It’s like taking a cup of tea and putting in a teaspoon of sugar,” he says. “We just need to know how strong to make the sugar.”

David Solomon Bassiouni, president of the Bassiouni Group, which advises Symphony Environmental in North America, acknowledges a need to curtail plastic straw pollution through viable practical solutions. “The longer you wait, the more waste builds up,” he says, “but people also feel a tangible relationship with that product. We have a banned regime, but we also need to think about solutions.”

It was a jumbo-size box of plastic straws that got glassmaker Craig Graffius into the alternative straw business 12 years ago — a business that suddenly increased by 500 percent in just six weeks this summer as straw bans began to gain traction across the United States.

Some companies are working to make plastic straws like these more biodegradable. (PATRICK PLEUL/AFP/Getty Images)

“I came home from Walmart one day with a box of like a thousand plastic straws for our kids,” recalls Graffius, “and my wife took one look and said, ‘Really? Can’t you make straws for the kids to use instead of buying ones that are just going to end up in landfills?’ ”

So Graffius did, indeed, start making glass straws, using sturdy German-made tubing, a few hundred here and there, sometimes decorated with tiny glass animals, which he often sold at craft fairs. Now he’s fielding calls from major hotel chains, hospitals and college campuses, all looking for viable alternatives to plastic.

Related: [Plastic straws aren’t just bad for the environment — they can be bad for your body]

“Most of the orders are coming from people who had never seen or heard of a glass straw,” Graffius says. “A typical straw takes us about five seconds to make by hand, but demand is so high that we’re trying to get that down to one second.”

At Tetra Pak, which makes such items as juice boxes that include disposable straws, the push is on to, as it were, think outside the box and look for solutions beyond straws, according to Larine Urbina, the company’s vice president of communications. “If you have a ban on a very specific thing, it can create other larger problems,” she says. “Our fear is that a ban on straws has an impact on our packaging that might, unintentionally, have a bigger impact on the environment.” This means that Tetra Pak is looking at such options as new pull tab designs instead of straws, as well as being sure to encourage recycling of its products.

And if you must have a straw in your margarita or pinot noir, Thrasher points to metal straws, which he has championed for years. Even so, customers, when they weren’t actually stealing them, often worried that the metal straws were “unhygienic,” despite the fact that, according to Thrasher, they were individually scrubbed and soaked in hot water for several hours each night before being sanitized.

“I never understand it when people ask about how clean the metal straws are,” chuckles Thrasher. “No one ever seems to think about forks and knives in the same way — I mean, that fork was in someone else’s mouth half an hour ago.”

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