Suck it up: Plastic straws are next target of anti-plastic movements

Jackie Wing, a full-time server at the Engine Room in Mystic, demonstrates using a paper straw in a mixed drink called 'Mail Order Groom' at the restaurant on Friday, April 27, 2018. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Jackie Wing, a full-time server at the Engine Room in Mystic, demonstrates using a paper straw in a mixed drink called "Mail Order Groom" at the restaurant on Friday, April 27, 2018. (Tim Martin/The Day)

On the heels of an attempt in Waterford to ban plastic bags from town stores, Connecticut environmentalists and business owners are hoping to cut back use of a different plastic product that will find its way into most people's mouths this summer.

The plastic straw, said Mystic Aquarium Director of Education and Conservation MaryEllen Mateleska, doesn't make up the bulk of the millions of plastic products that end up in the world's oceans each year. But straws and drink stirrers were the seventh most common kind of trash reported during a 2017 Ocean Conservancy coastal cleanup, after cigarette butts, food wrappers, grocery bags and plastic bottles, caps and lids.

But straws can't be recycled and often get used and discarded without any thought, making them a good target for scientists and environmental activists hoping to get excess plastic out of circulation and stem the flow of an estimated millions of tons of plastic flowing into the world's oceans and washing up along coastlines.

"Metal straws ... paper straws or no straws ... the trend is already starting," Mateleska said.

Organizations like Strawfree.org and Lonely Whale that promote the use of reusable straws or bans on straws seem to be having an effect; on the tail of bans or taxes on plastic bags in various countries, McDonald's is testing eliminating straws from its United Kingdom restaurants, and U.K. supermarkets, Buckingham Palace and the Scottish Parliament have expressed interest in getting rid of straws. In the United States, places from Malibu, Calif., to Fort Myers, Fla., have taken action to ban or limit the use of plastic straws.

"Single-use plastics, when they break down, never really completely disappear — it takes hundreds of years," Mateleska said. The plastic can end up in animals' stomachs and kill them — "I think everyone has seen a picture of the sea turtle with a straw in its nostril," she said — and as it disintegrates into microscopic pieces, it permeates the water and the fish that live in it."

"Nobody wants to eat plastic," Mateleska said.

Straws in particular are made of lightweight plastic that can easily get blown from landfills or garbage trucks into storm drains and the ocean and onto coastal beaches.

Mateleska said she's not aware of legislative efforts to ban or reduce the use of straws at the municipal level in Connecticut like the ones enacted in several towns and cities in California, Florida and Washington. A Department of Energy and Environmental Protection spokesman said straws have not been the focus of any statewide efforts.

But some restaurant owners and other institutions voluntarily have removed plastic straws from the drinks they serve in an effort to reduce the amount of plastic they throw out.

The University of Connecticut recently removed plastic straws from most of the dining facilities at its Storrs campus, with the exception of an ice cream stand; the paper straws don't stand up to milkshakes, university spokesman Michael Enright said. The university is phasing out plastic straws at the cafe on its Avery Point campus in Groton, Enright said.

'That's a lot of straws'

Save The Bay, which advocates for the health of Narragansett Bay, launched a campaign encouraging Westerly restaurants to eschew plastic straws for paper ones. So far a handful of businesses, including Flip Side Pinball Bar and Bridge restaurant, have done so.

So have the three restaurants in Mystic that Daniel Meiser owns, after an environmentally conscious employee at his Engine Room alerted Meiser to the perils of unnecessary plastic use. The paper straws cost more — more than twice the price of plastic ones — but distributing them only to customers who ask for them helps keep costs down, Meiser said.

"For us it makes sense, especially with the volume," Meiser said. Thousands of people buy food at one of his three restaurants — the Oyster Club, Grass and Bone, and Engine Room — every weekend. "If even half of those people order a drink with a straw in it, that's a lot of straws."

Meiser said customers have reacted well to the new straws — most decline if a waiter asks if they want one — and he said he's fielded only a few complaints that the paper alternatives get soggy if left in a drink too long.

The anti-plastic-straw movement also has come to Connecticut College, where the student government voted this week in favor of a resolution funding paper straws to replace plastic ones in campus coffee shops.

Anna Laprise, a Conn College sophomore, pushed for the switch along with classmate Avatar Simpson.

"I found out (campus coffee shops) use about 50,000 plastic straws per semester," Laprise said. "It really shocked me."

Not all in favor

Mystic Aquarium doesn't offer plastic straws at its dining facilities, both as a symbolic environmental gesture and because loose plastic could end up in the outdoor exhibits and harm the aquarium's animals.

Mateleska said she is planning an effort to remove plastic straws from Mystic businesses altogether, though she said that could be a hard sell, especially for chain restaurants and customers wary of the bearing the cost of the more expensive paper products.

"We have to be cognizant of the cost tagged on for the individual," she said.

Mateleska said she's starting by speaking to local nonprofits and individual businesses before pushing for an outright ban.

"We want to build up a community, so it's not just one person asking," she said. "So when we go to the (towns), we already have a large built-in support network."

Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said efforts focused on reducing straw use may inconvenience businesses without a proportional effect on plastic pollution.

"I'm all for efficiency," he said. "That's the great heart of the American entrepreneurial spirit." But, he said, "straws are very convenient household items and restaurant items ... and it seems to me there are bigger environmental issues we can tackle."

The number of straws eliminated from garbage cans at one institution may be a drop in the 500-million bucket of plastic straws that activists estimate are used every day in the U.S., but limiting their use on any level is an easy way to get people to think about the amount of plastic they consume and where it ends up, Laprise said.

"They're something that makes our lives easier, but not something that we definitely need," she said. "It's really a super simple way to cut something negative out of your life."

m.shanahan@theday.com

Editor's Note: Captions on this story have been amended to indicate that the Engine Room employees pictured are demonstrating use of paper straws for The Day.

Emily McCord, left, a full-time server at the Engine Room in Mystic, offers a toast with her mixed drink, called 'Abe Froman,' with co-worker Jackie Wing, with a mixed drink called 'Mail Order Groom,' with both glasses sporting paper straws as the two model paper straws at the restaurant on Friday, April 27, 2018. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Emily McCord, left, a full-time server at the Engine Room in Mystic, offers a toast with her mixed drink, called "Abe Froman," with co-worker Jackie Wing, with a mixed drink called "Mail Order Groom," with both glasses sporting paper straws as the two model paper straws at the restaurant on Friday, April 27, 2018. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Emily McCord, a full-time server at the Engine Room in Mystic, demonstrates using a paper straw in a mixed drink called 'Abe Froman' at the restaurant on Friday, April 27, 2018. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Emily McCord, a full-time server at the Engine Room in Mystic, demonstrates using a paper straw in a mixed drink called "Abe Froman" at the restaurant on Friday, April 27, 2018. (Tim Martin/The Day)

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