Why some Missouri restaurateurs are saying goodbye to plastic straws

The Last Straw. Straws Suck. Whatever punny names they’re giving their campaigns, many Missouri restaurateurs are ditching the single-use plastic straw.

In an effort to reduce plastic pollution, a growing number of restaurants across the state have already stopped offering plastic straws in their restaurants, instead switching to more environmentally friendly straws made of paper or compostable plastic. Others have pledged to phase out plastic straws or reduce their straw use by only handing them out when customers request them.

In St. Louis and Kansas City, at least 42 food establishments have pledged to reduce their plastic straw use or switch to alternative straws since the beginning of the year. Similar campaigns have also popped up in both Columbia and Springfield, where more than a dozen restaurants and bars between the two cities have made similar pledges since last month.

The campaigns come as national awareness over the role straws play in plastic pollution is at an all-time high. Last week, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to implement a plastic straw ban. And on Monday, Starbucks announced it would phase out single-use plastic straws in all its stores worldwide by 2020 — something the company says will remove more than 1 billion straws from potentially polluting the planet each year.

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.

Jenn DeRose, of the Green Dining Alliance in St. Louis, said interest in reducing straw waste has surged among the group’s members in recent months. The alliance promotes St. Louis restaurants that meet its environmental standards, such as not using Styrofoam containers or limiting use of single-use plastic products.

But out of the group’s 115 members, DeRose said, nearly half decided to take action specifically toward reducing their straw use. “Many of our restaurants, especially in the last couple months, have jumped on that train,” she said. “It’s pretty exciting.”

One of those restaurants is Mission Taco Joint, a St. Louis-based Mexican restaurant chain. The company operates five locations in St. Louis and Kansas City. In February, the owners announced that all five stores would switch to compostable plastic straws and only offer them upon request by the customer.

Teresa Hava, who manages the Delmar Loop location in St. Louis, said Mission Taco Joint decided to make the switch after it ran a four-month audit last year at three of its locations and discovered those stores alone used nearly 350,000 plastic straws over that time period. “It was shocking,” Hava said.

But after changing the policy, Hava said, the company reduced their straw use by about 300,000 over the same four-month period this year. “That equates to 25,000 straws per store, per month,” she said. “Multiply that over five stores for a full year and we’re keeping 1.5 million straws out of landfills.”

A Last Straw campaign sign sits on a bar next to a stash of paper straws at Lindberg’s in Springfield. The campaign urges Springfield restaurants to eliminate or reduce their plastic straw use. | Courtesy of James River Basin Partnership
Costlier but with caveats

Of course, switching to compostable or paper straws comes at a price, said Anne Baker, owner of Finnegan’s Wake in Springfield.

Baker switched to paper straws back in January because she was tired of seeing plastic straws clogging up the grease traps at her Irish pub, she said, and hated the idea of those straws going to a landfill or into local waterways. “Every time we got our grease traps cleaned out, 80 percent of it was straws,” she said.

Plastic straws typically cost around a cent apiece, Baker said, but paper straws can run up to five times that. Stainless steel straws, which Finnegan’s switched to last month, cost even more at 37 cents a pop, she said, which customers can reuse indefinitely.

Logboat Brewing Company in Columbia also made the switch from plastic straws to a costlier alternative.

Mark Alexiou, Logboat’s bar manager, said the company started buying compostable plastic straws back in January, at nearly six times the amount of single-use plastic. A case of plastic straws costs about $13, he said, while the new compostable straws cost roughly $70 a case. “You can see why bars go for the cheaper option,” he said.

But like many restaurants looking to reduce straws, Logboat also stopped automatically giving straws whenever someone ordered a cocktail, Alexiou said. That move will end up saving the brewery money, he said, since Logboat went from using about 4,000 straws a year to just 150 straws over the last six months since they switched.

Baker said she has seen other restaurants in Springfield experience similar savings, or at least breaking even, after they stopped handing out straws automatically. She also expects that Finnegan’s will save money in the long run, since it will now charge customers to buy a steel straw if they request one, she said.

Alexiou said it’s always been the industry standard to hand out straws without question. But these new campaigns hope to change that habit, he said. “Now we don’t have to spend this money on items that get thrown out after two minutes of use,” he said.

Larger forces at work

There are larger forces at work when it comes to the national dialogue around plastic straws, said Maisie Ganzler, vice president of strategy for Bon Appétit Management Company.

The California-based catering company runs more than 1,000 cafés and restaurants across 33 states, including Missouri, and announced that it would stop using single-use plastic straws in all its restaurants back in May.

Particularly, Ganzler said, plastic straws are just part of a larger national conversation around single-use plastic products, including plastic bags. And as demand for alternatives to single-use plastic products grow, she said, those alternatives will get cheaper.

“We’re at peak price right now because there’s been this sudden interest in paper straws and the supply hasn’t been there. It’s been a rather niche product,” she said. “But as more and more restaurants … signal to the marketplace that they want paper straws, suppliers will come in and prices will come down.”

And while Missouri cities won’t likely join Seattle in banning single-use plastic products anytime soon, Ganzler believes market forces and public opinion may at least continue making it attractive for restaurant owners to buck plastic. “We do hope eventually that there will be government action, but we’re not going to wait for it,” she said.

Missouri Business Alert’s sustainability coverage is funded in part by the Mid-Missouri Solid Waste Management District.

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