Paper, bamboo, Twizzlers: Restaurants consider alternatives to the plastic straw

José Andrés, shown in a 2016 file photo, says “It’s beautiful to drink directly from a glass. It’s the most elegant thing. Why would you want a piece of plastic?” MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin
José Andrés, shown in a 2016 file photo, says “It’s beautiful to drink directly from a glass. It’s the most elegant thing. Why would you want a piece of plastic?” MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin

Order a drink at Mama’s Fish House in Maui, and it’ll arrive topped with a black paper straw. At South Africa’s Conscious 108, you’ll likely get a straw made of steel.

And at Harlem Public, waiters hand out Twizzlers, with their tips cut off, for sipping certain drinks.

The best part? When they’re done slurping up their cocktails, “close to 100 percent” of customers eat the Twizzler-turned-straw, says owner Lauren Lynch. In other words: zero waste.

As local governments mull restrictions on plastic straws, restaurants and bars around the world are toying with new ways to replace a piece of plastic that has become a ubiquitous part of dining out, whether at a fast-food drive-through or a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Legislation introduced recently in California would make it illegal for waiters to dole out unsolicited plastic straws. Seattle is banning plastic straws and utensils beginning in July, and California cities Davis and San Luis Obispo now prohibit restaurants from handing out plastic straws unless requested by a customer. Coastal countries like South Africa, Costa Rica and Thailand have also been at the forefront of such a movement, shifting to straws made of bamboo, wood or paper instead of plastic.

“There is so much plastic waste that washes up on our beaches that we knew we had to do something,” said Emma Iacono, co-owner of Ylang Ylang Beach Resort in Montezuma, Costa Rica. “We’re trying to eliminate as much plastic as we can.”

The resort stopped using plastic straws nearly two years ago, and now provides biodegradable straws upon request.

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“Some people are a little grumpy about it, but most of them understand,” Iacono said, adding that the resort went from using 500 plastic straws a week to about 25 biodegradable ones.

By some estimates, Americans throw away 500 million plastic straws a day. The no-plastic movement, which has grown steadily in recent years, gained momentum following a viral video three years ago that shows a sea turtle with a plastic straw wedged in its nose. Walt Disney World has since banned plastic straws at some of its theme parks, and the Smithsonian Institution has taken steps to eliminate them from its museums. Even celebrities have taken note: Actor Adrian Grenier and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson are among those speaking out against plastic straw use.

“Can humanity survive without plastic straws? I think so,” said celebrity chef and Washington area restaurateur José Andrés.

But his customers don’t always agree.

Back in 2010, Andrés swapped out plastic straws for paper ones at his Washington restaurants, which include Jaleo, Zaytinya and Oyamel. As a scuba diver, he said he’d seen firsthand the impact of plastic straws on the environment, and wanted to do his part to cut back on unnecessary waste.

Diners were livid.

“It was the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a customer revolt,” he said. (Another close call: When he changed his recipe for patatas bravas 20 years ago.) “Nobody liked them. Customers were mad. Bartenders wanted to quit because they weren’t getting tips. It was awful.”

He reverted back to plastic and tried again a few years later, to the same results. Now he’s settled on a compromise: Customers don’t get plastic straws unless they specifically request them, and only about 5 percent do.

At Minibar by José Andrés — where meals cost $275 per person, not including drinks — cocktails sometimes come with straws made of wood, metal, glass and even hollowed out fennel.

“The straw is this human invention that, for some reason, we’ve come to love,” Andrés said. “But it’s beautiful to drink directly from a glass. It’s the most elegant thing. Why would you want a piece of plastic?”

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(Andrés has also jumped on the opportunity to call out the president: “Please @realDonaldTrump remember plastic straws are bad for the environment ...,” Andrés tweeted in December in response to a photo of Trump using a straw.)

Demand for biodegradable straws is on the upswing, according to restaurant suppliers around the country. Online retailer Webstaurant Store now offers 34 types of compostable straws, alongside 114 plastic varieties. Restaurantware.com, which specializes in eco-friendly supplies, stocks several varieties of stainless steel straws, including some the company says are gold-plated.

“Straws are kind of an unnecessary item we’ve gotten accustomed to,” said Kara Woodring, a sales representative at Aardvark, a Colo.-based manufacturer of paper straws. “If you can go without, that’s great. But if you can’t, we have an alternative.”

The company, which invented paper straws in 1888, sold them with much success for decades. But by the 1960s, low-cost plastic straws had begun flooding the market.

“Plastic came around and wiped out all of our manufacturing at that point,” Woodring said. “It was a dramatic shift.”

The company came back to life decades later, in 2007, when it updated its paper straws at the request of Ted’s Montana Grill, the chain of restaurants founded by media mogul Ted Turner. But overall demand was tepid — Aardvark had just a couple of clients, and many restaurants were wary of paying a premium for straws that customers didn’t seem to like. (Paper straws cost about 1.5 cents to 2 cents apiece, about four times what plastic straws do, Woodring said.)

Now Aardvark has thousands of clients. Sales of its biodegradable option have doubled over the past five years, even as company executives urge restaurants to do away with straws entirely.

“Less is more,” Woodring said. “Most people don’t need a straw at all.”

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At Freehold Brooklyn, a coffee shop, bar and private event space in New York, managers say they used to spend $9,000 a year buying 1.5 million straws. But over the past two years, they’ve swapped out plastic for paper, and have begun weaning customers off straws altogether. These days, waiters hand out just five or six straws a week, said marketing director Lydia Mazzolini.

“It’s so easy to do without a straw once you try it,” she said. “We think of it as a gateway plastic.”

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