The simple plastic straw has become a complicated problem for the restaurant business.
In just a few months, several restaurant companies have scrambled to find a solution to what had been a relatively simple part of their supply chain as consumers and municipalities demand the elimination of plastic straws.
Over the past month, the two biggest restaurant chains in the country have promised to find a solution to the plastic straw: McDonald’s promised to test nonplastic straws, while Starbucks developed a new lid and said it would eliminate plastic straws by 2020.
Smaller companies have, too. Fox Restaurant Concepts, Union Square Hospitality Group, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, The Green Turtle and Shoney’s have all either changed their straw policies, changed the makeup of their straws or vowed to do so.
But eliminating such straws isn’t so simple.
“Cost is the biggest issue in making the change,” says Sarah Blasi, vice president of marketing at A&W Restaurants, which operates more than 630 franchised locations in the U.S. A&W is considering a switch to a nonplastic straw. “What most people outside the industry may not understand is that we’re in a penny business. Our margins are extremely thin, and there are other pressures from labor, fuel prices and commodities that are rising every day.”
Straws historically were first made of paper. But plastic became the material of choice in the 1960s, according to Scott DeFife, vice president of government affairs for the Plastics Industry Association.
“It was waterproof, durable, flexible and more cost-effective,” he says. “This is still true today.”
Driving concern is the amount of plastic pollution that is making its way into the world’s waterways, and particularly its oceans. Environmental groups, citing a 2015 study in the journal Science, argue that 8 million metric tons of plastic are thrown into the ocean every year.
Several groups, including the Surfrider Foundation and the Plastic Pollution Coalition, have been formed to push alternatives to single-use plastic.
The Ocean Conservancy, in a report on ocean cleanup last year, found that straws were among the 10 most collected items in its ocean cleanup efforts.
Yet other items, including cigarette butts, plastic bottles and caps, food wrappers, grocery bags and plastic lids were all more common than straws.
To environmental groups, plastic straws are seen as an item that are unnecessary. Or, at the very least, they could be easily replaced with paper or reusable options.
Some cities around the country have started to ban plastic straws. Earlier this month, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to institute a ban on the product.
A major push in Europe is also forcing some of the larger companies to ponder straw strategies. The U.K. could ban single-use plastics such as straws as early as next year.
As such, McDonald’s said it would switch to paper straws in the U.K. and Ireland next year as part of its effort to find a successor to the plastic straw.
But it’s not just cities and environmental groups. Restaurant operators say customers are demanding alternatives, too.
“When we opened Flower Child in Santa Monica a few years ago, I’ll never forget when a guest came up to me and asked if I’d consider eliminating plastic straws from our restaurants,” says Sam Fox, CEO of Fox Restaurant Concepts. “It stuck with me ever since, and it was finally time to make the simple change.”
Companies also sense a change in sentiment on social media. “The trends are easy to spot and hard to ignore,” Blasi says. “We know there are other opportunities for our drink and other food vessels.”
Nashville-based Shoney’s said this week it would move to paper straws by 2020 in all company-owned locations. “America has spoken, and Shoney’s always listens and for the sake of the environment and our communities, we are taking action,” CEO David Davoudpour said in a statement.
A&W is looking into straws and utensils that are made of polylactic acid, or PLA, which Blasi says looks and acts like plastic but is typically made with cornstarch or other plant-based materials. They are renewable and compostable, she says, and perform better in tests than paper.
She says that PLA straws “look exactly like plastic and would be virtually impossible to tell they aren’t plastic without a paper wrap to indicate the material the straw is made of.”
“We don’t necessarily think paper straws are the best option, because they will become soggy over time,” she says. But she said paper is still a better solution than plastic.
Yet while alternative straws are more expensive than plastic, some restaurateurs believe they can actually save money by only giving customers straws by request.
That’s what Fox does. In June, the company switched its straws to a biodegradable straw. But it only gives those straws out by request.
Fox believes that his business will save money this way, calling it a “sound business decision.”
“I do expect the decision to reduce supply cost,” he says. “But it also goes along with our operational efforts to have little to no waste.”
The Plastics Industry Association argues that by-request policies are better than outright bans, which “can very quickly wreak havoc on a restaurant’s supply chain.”
“Your packaging decisions shouldn’t drive your business,” DeFife says. “It should be the other way around.”