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Grasping at straws

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Peter Romeo


Slap an asterisk on the old adage about death and taxes. For restaurateurs, the list of certainties has officially been extended to include a halt in providing plastic straws.

If you’ve not already dropped them, it’s just a matter of time until you do. And we’re likely talking weeks, or possibly days, not years. Three months ago, the movement was limited to the usual hemp-underwear crowd, the sorts who admirably want to do right by the planet and not-so-laudably refuse to let practicality stand in their way. Even on their list, the cause wasn’t as high of a priority as promoting electric cars or eliminating the plastic coatings inside some food cans.

Now, in a wink, it’s as universal as liking Tom Hanks. In 34 years of covering foodservice, I’ve not seen a movement rocket so quickly from the fringes to the mainstream. The recent converts range from kitchen master Daniel Boulud to McDonald’s, a player that usually can’t spec another sesame seed for its Big Mac buns without years of logistical preparation. It’s almost certainly the planet’s largest provider of plastic straws. Yet it’s already switching to paper versions in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, while testing degradable alternatives in its home market. That alone would be like NASA saying, “Hey, what say we shoot something up to the moon tomorrow?”

Granted, changing straws isn’t quite as complex as posting calorie counts on menus or meeting the requirements of accommodations laws. But cost considerations and guest preferences definitely come into play, especially with the boom in takeout and delivery. As a C-suite executive of one major chain told me, paper straws just don’t travel like the plastic versions. Plus, to really reap the environmental impact, the paper versions need to be composted or recycled, and that could affect restaurants’ hauling charges. In the current environment, anything that erodes margins or potentially disappoints customers is going to be as welcome as an IRS audit.

With changes of this scale, there are almost certain to be unforeseen consequences. Seattle’s ban on straws is a case in point. Before the measure went into effect July 1, disabled consumers were blasting the measure as prejudicial. Persons with maladies such as multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy could bite through paper straws, explained the Seattle Commission for People with DisAbilities. “While we understand the intent here was to remove a harmful single-use plastic from circulation, the impact on our community in particular is outsized and could exclude individuals with disabilities from fully participating,” the advocacy group wrote on its Facebook page. “Other types of straws simply do not offer the combination of strength, flexibility and safety that plastic straws do.” 

Bans may prompt restaurateurs to shoot first and answer questions as they arise, a route recommended by five out of five lawyers. A quick straw count shows 14 municipalities having outlawed the plastic versions, with legislation under consideration in New York City, Hawaii and California. Venues like baseball stadiums, museums and colleges have also declared prohibitions.

Yet restaurants aren’t grasping for new straws because enemies of the plastic version are ready to wallop the industry with fines and public shaming. The real story is that the industry is doing the right thing this time around. They, too, understand the ecological risks posed to sea life by nonbiodegradable straws, and they appreciate the concern shown by customers, employees and even investors (a halt on the use of plastic straws was proposed by shareholders at McDonald’s annual meeting in May, but was voted down). Restaurant companies of all shapes and sizes are switching straws, or dropping their use altogether, even without the threat of legislation or a public backlash. They’re doing it because it’s the environmentally friendly thing to do, and it’s within their capabilities to do it.

It’s just a shame the industry isn’t getting credit for being on the forefront of the cause—the dragger instead of the dragged this time around. 

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