CULTURE KLASH: Ditch the Straw

By on May 24, 2017

How a local initiative aims to make locals think twice about the way they imbibe.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Sarah Steinwand couldn’t help noticing: every time she ordered a cocktail at a bar it came with two small plastic straws. She thought about all the plastic that ends up in landfills and in the ocean and while the straws were small, they also seemed unnecessary. She watched as her friends and other patrons received their drinks and often immediately removed the straws, unused but headed for the garbage.

It was, at first, a small annoyance to Steinwand. But the more she thought about it, the more she became concerned. When she researched plastic straws, she found a host of information: Americans use 500 million straws a day. An average restaurant uses 36,400 straws a year. And those straws, so small and easy to swallow, end up inside marine life, like turtles, dolphins and whales.

Last fall Steinwand launched a campaign called Straw Free Jackson Hole. The local initiative is a passion project she’s pursuing alongside her full-time job at the Jackson public relations firm Purple Orange. She’s encouraging bars and restaurants to stop using disposable plastic straws, unless customers specifically ask for one. And she’s trying to teach restaurantgoers to request their drinks sans straw.

It’s an effort that has become a national movement. “It’s a very small thing that communities can do to stop plastic waste in our ecosystem,” Steinwand said. “It seems like something so little and unnecessary for us to be using, and something so simple to stop using that could make a pretty huge impact on the environment.”

Steinwand started talking about straws at local meetings on recycling and reached out to area restaurant owners last fall.

Some restaurants have already committed to serving drinks without straws unless a customer specifically requests one. Other restaurant owners and managers heard about Steinwand’s efforts and approached her to find out more information.

Josh Hirschmann, the manager and sustainability coordinator at Local, said it was Steinwand’s campaign that made him consider changing the restaurant’s straw policy. He was immediately on board with the idea in terms of its environmental impacts, but is still trying to navigate how to reduce straws without customers feeling like they are getting substandard service.

“People don’t think ‘Oh, may I have a straw,’ if you give them a drink without one, they think it’s a lack of service,” he said.

It’s part of bar culture that drinks come with straws, most importantly for stirring, not necessarily for sipping cocktails, he said. So it will take concerted efforts to educate customers on why their drinks don’t come with a straw unless it’s requested, Hirschmann said.

There are also some patrons who need straws, such as little kids, or adults with dentures. Hirschmann is investigating biodegradable straws or bamboo stir sticks. He’s struggled to find high quality options that also make economic sense for the restaurant. Some biodegradable pint glass straws would increase costs 40 percent and environmentally friendly cocktail straw prices climb 400 percent compared to what the restaurant normally pays.

But Hirschmann isn’t deterred. While he hasn’t found a solution yet, he thinks eventually Local will find a way to not use plastic straws.  More customers value sustainability when choosing businesses and restaurants where they spend money. It also motivates employees to know they work for a company that values environmental efforts, he said.

Trio, Local’s sister restaurant, stopped putting straws in drinks, unless specifically requested by customers, in the fall, noted server Josh Woodbury. He used to work at Pearl Street Bagels and hated watching how many disposable coffee cups ended up in the trash. He noticed the same thing with straws at Trio. After talking with Steinwand, the restaurant made some changes.

While owners at Trio agreed to stop serving straws unless requested, they did worry what customers would think, but there haven’t been complaints, Woodbury said. There are some customers Woodbury still serves straws without prompting—after years of working at Trio, he can sense what customers expect, but he hopes the culture will change.

That will take more businesses adopting similar policies to change the assumption that straws equal customer service, he said.

Steinwand knows some drinks like smoothies and sloshies require straws. Restaurants like Persephone and Healthy Being Juicery and Café use compostable straws, an environmentally friendly but expensive alternative she understands other businesses might find too costly. She knows some restaurants need straws for to-go cups with lids. But for Steinwand, these are solvable problems.

She’d love for customers to start buying reusable glass straws they bring to places where they order smoothies, the same way people bring reusable mugs to the coffee shop. And if restaurants didn’t keep lids and straws stacked near soda machines, people might opt to drink from the cup without either, she said.

Steinwand knows it isn’t realistic for Jackson eateries and locals to completely stop using straws. So she’d consider her efforts successful if she walked into a restaurant and saw most people with straw-free drinks.

“There wouldn’t be a pile of straws by the soda machine and that would be a total success,” she said. “It’s such a small thing our community can do to help keep waste out of our waters. It’s such an easy way to make a big difference. I think it’s a realistic goal we can achieve.” PJH

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