For peddlers of plasticware, 2018 hasn’t been a good year. But that also means the market for alternatives to plastic products is just taking off.
Many environmentalists believe the rising level of plastic pollution has been a crisis a long time coming. But for others, the crusade to reduce the world’s single-use plastic hit a tipping point this year.
Missouri in 2019 looks at issues important to Missouri business for the year ahead.
In July, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban single-use plastic straws and utensils. That move was quickly followed by similar announcements from major American corporations like Starbucks, Aramark and American Airlines, all of which vowed to phase out using plastic straws within the next couple years.
Then, earlier this month, the EU finalized a plan that officially banned 10 plastic products, Popular Science reports. That ban includes plastic cutlery, plates, straws, Styrofoam containers and plastic Q-tips.
In Missouri, efforts to ban single-use plastic products have been met by strong legislative opposition at both the city and state level. But that didn’t stop several dozen restaurateurs across Missouri from launching their own campaigns to reduce plastic straw waste.
In the U.S., an estimated 500 million straws are used every day, according to recycling nonprofit Eco-Cycle. Plastic straws are not accepted by most recyclers, meaning they head to landfills or become litter, often in the ocean. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one- to two-thirds of waste cleaned up off U.S. beaches is single-use plastic products like straws or bags.
That’s why many environmentally conscious businesses are now shifting their focus from straws to plastic waste in general as they plan for 2019, said Jenn DeRose of Green Dining Alliance, a St. Louis-based business coalition focused on promoting environmentally friendly practices.
“Single-use plastic is so much bigger than the straw problem,” DeRose said.
The group, which has about 115 members spread across the St. Louis and Kansas City areas, had nearly half its members pledge to ditch or reduce their plastic straw use over the summer. Now, DeRose said, about 25 of the group’s members are vowing to do the same thing with single-use plastic cutlery, often given automatically with any takeout or delivery order.
In Columbia, there has been a growing trend among restaurant and bar owners to switch from single-use plastic straws and utensils to ones made out of compostable plastic or paper, said Lydia Melton, owner of Gunter Hans and chair of the Mid-Missouri Restaurant Association.
And while paper or compostable products can cost up to 10 times as much as single-use plastic ones, Melton said businesses can still save by only giving those products to customers when they’re requested — although she hasn’t tracked how much her company has saved since making the switch.
Other Columbia businesses like Logboat Brewing Company have made similar switches. At Logboat, the company now spends about $70 per case for compostable straws, as opposed to $13 for single-use plastic ones. But the company said it’s still saving by going through thousands fewer straws every year.
Those trends have sent demand for alternatives to plastic products skyrocketing in Missouri, said Joe Garrett Jr. of Garrett Paper Inc.
Particularly after a video went viral of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose, followed by Seattle banning single-use plastic straws, the St. Louis paper product supplier was slammed with requests for paper straws, Garrett Jr. said.
The company, which previously held a case or two of paper straws for specialty orders, suddenly began receiving requests for hundreds of cases of paper straws. “With everyone jumping on that bandwagon, no supplier could keep up with the demand,” Garrett Jr. said.
It’s not just restaurants and bars that are pledging to reduce their plastic waste and buying up alternative products.
The Magic House, a St. Louis children’s museum, recently announced that it will no longer offer plastic bags at its gift shop in 2019, instead opting for more expensive paper bags. The move comes as the museum prepares for the January launch of its latest exhibit, which will focus on ocean conservation.
Carrie Hutchcraft, the museum’s director of marketing and development, said the paper bags will run roughly 50 percent more than the plastic ones and that the organization will absorb the cost. “It would just be so disingenuous of us to be telling families not to use plastic bags and then have them walk over to the museum shop and get a bag that was plastic,” she said.
Similarly, the Saint Louis Zoo has continued its own campaign to reduce plastic waste by getting visitors to pledge to switch to reusable bags instead of single-use plastic ones. That campaign, which started in 2016, has received 9,115 pledges from visitors as of this month to make that switch, according to the zoo’s website.
The movement has proved to be a boon for Garrett Paper, even as the company continues to lag behind demand. Garrett Jr. said he believes suppliers will finally catch up with current needs for paper straws by spring 2019.
That bottleneck, he said, exists mostly because of shipping costs and recent tariffs imposed on Canada and China, since there are virtually no domestic paper companies that manufacture those products in the U.S. However, some entrepreneurs are already stepping up to fill that gap.
DeRose sees the situation as a missed chance for Missouri companies that aren’t capitalizing on a developing manufacturing market. “I don’t know any Missouri-based manufacturers,” she said. “I believe they’re missing out on a very lucrative opportunity.”