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Movement builds in restaurants to drop plastic straws

Whether acting voluntarily or as a result of new rules, restaurants are changing their policies on what's been blasted as an environmental hazard.

Environmentalists’ complaints about plastic drinking straws are finding a receptive audience in lawmakers and restaurateurs, fostering a changeover that’s already at warp speed in international markets.

Restaurants are dropping the nondegradable versions both voluntarily and under threat of sanction. In New York City, for instance, 130 independent restaurants have signed a pledge to provide customers with paper, wood or metal sippers in lieu of the plastic version.

Plastic straws will no longer be provided by Union Square Hospitality Group, Danny Meyer’s fine-dining collection. If customers of Greene Turtle, a 46-unit sports bar chain, want a straw with their drinks, they’ll be provided with a paper version.  The regional operation estimates that 7 million fewer plastic straws will end up in the garbage because of the change.

Meanwhile, the New York City Council is expected to consider a measure that would levy fines starting at $100 on restaurants that provide plastic straws, after a two-year phase-in. The proposal was introduced two days before the Memorial Day weekend, the height of the city’s drinks season.

“It’s no secret that we have a plastic problem,” Council member Rafael Espinal said in introducing the proposal.

The coastal getaway of Ocean City, Md., kicked off the start of its busy season by asking restaurants to provide only paper straws, and only when one is requested. Consumers are asked to sign a pledge that they’ll not use a plastic one.

The Strawless Summer initiative was launched by an environmental group called the Surfrider Foundation, with the support of local lawmakers. The environmental group says it has similar programs underway in Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; San Diego; and Charleston, S.C.

Malibu, Calif., has banned plastic straws, as have Miami, Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. Oakland, Calif., requires restaurants to provide straws only upon request, and paper ones in those instances. Davis and San Luis Obispo, Calif., have similar regulations.

A law to ban plastic straws statewide was introduced by a California lawmaker early this year, but died under a storm of protest about the legislature overreaching and ignoring more pressing issues.

Despite the recent legislative and regulatory activity, North America lags behind Europe in striving to eliminate the use of straws, which are cited by environmentalists as a danger to wildlife because they can be mistaken for food and ingested.  The problem is particularly pronounced for fish and other sea creatures.

The European Commission, the executive steering committee of the 28-nation European Union, issued a recommendation on Monday that all member countries ban plastic straws because of the harm that is done to beaches and wildlife. Participating nations such as Scotland and Denmark have already pledged to outlaw the nondegradable sippers, and political leaders in the United Kingdom have committed to seeking a ban.

Many restaurateurs in Europe are not waiting for mandates to force a change. McDonald’s, for instance, now provides paper straws at 1,300 units in the U.K., and only upon request.

Last week, shareholders of the company considered a proposal during their annual meeting to ban the use of plastic straws chainwide, but voted down the measure. Instead, McDonald’s pledged to continue exploring alternatives to the plastic straws it currently uses in its home market.

“We estimate that globally 95 million single-use plastic straws are distributed by McDonald’s every day,” said Elaine Leung, the marine biologist and advocate who proposed the no-straw pledge. “A recent poll suggests that nine in 10 people would support a full or partial ban on plastic straws.”

Nearly half a million consumers have signed a petition asking that McDonald’s drop plastic sippers, Leung said.

One of the reasons for heightened public concern, advocates agree, is the awareness roused by social media. Shared photos and videos have been particularly effective in raising concerns about the ingestion of plastic straws. A clip on YouTube that showed a straw caught in a turtle's nose was viewed 25 million times, for instance.

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