Plastic straws losing favour with New Yorkers

Many diners skip lids for their drinks, but not the straws. PHOTOS: NYTIMES
Straws at Smith Canteen, which began providing ones made of paper as an option, in New York on May 9, 2018. PHOTOS: NYTIMES
Mr Basu Ratnam, owner of three fast-casual Indian restaurants named Inday, where straws are now provided only when customers request them, in New York on May 9, 2018. PHOTOS: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - Finally, it is warm enough to walk the streets of New York while nursing an iced coffee, a chilled juice or a cold soda.

It is straw season. But in many quarters, the ubiquitous plastic straw has suddenly become a pariah for the harm it can do to the environment.

The United States alone uses and discards millions of plastic straws every day, according to Eco-Cycle, a non-profit group that promotes recycling.

While straws account for only a small fraction of the single-use plastics in circulation or in landfills, their size and shape make them a threat to marine life: the straws can entrap animals and be swallowed whole by fish.

Online campaigns like Stop Sucking and the Last Plastic Straw have declared war on the straws.

Some cities, including Seattle and Malibu, California, have banned them.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May has vowed to outlaw the sale of plastic straws before the end of the year.

In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew M. Cuomo have railed against plastic bags. Mr Cuomo recently introduced a bill to outlaw single-use plastic bags.

But it is not government officials or consumers who seem to be leading the shift away from plastic straws. It is businesses.

Straws at Smith Canteen, which began providing ones made of paper as an option, in New York on May 9, 2018. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Last month, Ms Kerry Diamond began offering paper as well as plastic straws at Smith Canteen, her coffee shop in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, after talking to her brother Patrick Diamond, who heads the Rise Above Plastics campaign for the New York City chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

She said that despite all the online chatter about alternatives to plastic straws, no customer had ever requested one.

To her surprise, the restaurant ran out of paper straws in a week.

"This is something people wanted more than I anticipated," Ms Diamond said.

Mr Basu Ratnam, owner of three fast-casual Indian restaurants named Inday, where straws are now provided only when customers request them, in New York on May 9, 2018. PHOTO: NYTIMES

At Inday, three fast-casual Indian restaurants in Manhattan, owner Basu Ratnam has received countless e-mail messages from customers asking about his recycling policies and the sustainability of the bowls and cutlery - but none about straws.

In April, after reading reports about how plastic straws contributed to whale deaths, he stopped putting them out at Inday's flagship.

"People stopped asking for them," he said. "Straws are a small, non-essential beverage accessory that we found people aren't super attached to. We have been able to change customer behaviour without being disruptive."

He has since stopped putting out straws at all his restaurants (though customers can get plastic straws on request).

For some businesses, eliminating straws is an aesthetic decision. The upscale Mexican restaurants Atla and Cosme, in Manhattan, offer only metal or paper straws - and only on request.

The beverage director, Ms Yana Volfson, said that because she carefully chooses the glassware, a straw of any kind "would take away from that more visceral experience of a cocktail".

Drinks like a margarita, which has a salt-lined rim, she said, are meant for strawless sipping. "Why have we made it the norm that every cocktail should be served with a straw, even when someone doesn't need or hasn't asked for one?" she said.

When asked, several customers said they favoured doing away with plastic straws, but would stop using them only if restaurants took the lead.

"When you order a glass of water at a diner, the waiter just automatically brings the straw," said Ms Ninna Seerup, 29, who was sipping coffee (sans straw) at Kos Kaffe in Park Slope, Brooklyn. "When you think about it, you don't need it, but it's already there." On the other hand, she said she found the idea of reusing a metal straw "a bit disgusting."

At another table, Ms Louise Laage Toft, also 29, said she loved the protection that straws provide. "When I have a Coke, I like drinking it with a straw so I don't touch anything to my teeth," she said.

But if plastic straws were banned, she added, "I would be fine with it. The environment is more important than me and my weirdness."

Still, most establishments continue to hand out plastic straws, which are often cheaper and more durable than their paper siblings.

Even some coffee shops, which commonly pride themselves on their green initiatives, seem reluctant to change.

"Our customers are pretty conscientious," said Ms Caroline Bell, chief executive and co-owner of Cafe Grumpy, a local chain that uses environmentally friendly LED lights and compostable coffee bags. She said the company was exploring alternatives to plastic straws.

But asked about dropping straws altogether, she was aghast. "That's crazy," she said. "If there weren't straws, customers would have a meltdown. It would be very hard to get away from them, especially with people commuting."

At a Greenwich Village location of Gregorys Coffee, Ms Emma Stratigos, the store leader, said that while more customers have been bringing reusable cups, she had never seen anyone with a reusable straw.

"Actually, if we run out of straws at a condiment station for, like, 30 seconds, there is an uproar," Ms Stratigos said. "It's funny, too, because if people need room for milk, they will sip the coffee out of the cup, and then they'll still put on the lid and straw. It's a force of habit."

The only way to render straws obsolete is to redesign lids and cups, said Mr Ratnam. "The onus is on the restaurant owners to work with buyers and manufacturers to come up with a solution that can accommodate the functionality of a straw without using one," he said. "If enough restaurant owners came together, you could force innovation."

New York summers are likely a long way from going completely straw-free, but Ms Diamond said she was optimistic. "I imagine that one day when you talk to little kids, they might be like, 'What's a straw?' in the same way that they now don't know what a typewriter is."

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