Who would have thought straws could be so controversial? Alternatives to plastic straws are everywhere. Which ones suck, and which ones fail to suck? And don’t we have much larger environmental problems to solve?
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I’m on the hunt for the perfect straw. I want to find out which straws suck, and which ones fail to suck.
I bring my friend Michael Swingen along. We start at Prizefighter, a trendy bar in Emeryville with signature cocktails. At first, Michael isn’t sure he’s hip enough to patronize such a hip place, but he orders a gin and tonic and we settle in to try some straws.
Our drinks arrive with straws made out of wheat. Which is surprising to Michael.
“It's literally made out of straw,” He says. “People were saying it's plant based, but it's literally a piece of straw. Definitely a different texture than the plastic.”
The wheat straws look cool, but after only a few sips Michaels breaks.
“I wasn't even trying to be aggressive with it.” He says. “It doesn't work.”
Straw laws are a lot like the plastic bag ban. They started at the city level. Five Bay Area cities passed straw laws, followed soon after by the state law. It says businesses that serve drinks are only allowed to hand out plastic straws on request or make them available in a self-service area. If you need a plastic straw because of a disability, you can still get one. The law doesn’t apply to fast food or take-out places. A lot of places now give out paper straws. We try them, and we are disappointed by their sogginess. I ask Michael if the straw is still able to convey liquid into his mouth.
“It still does its job” he says. “But it’s just not very attractive.”
After a few drinks, we need food so we go to Saul’s in North Berkeley. It’s a Jewish deli on Shattuck avenue with a black and white tile floor and red vinyl booths. They make their own pita bread and corned beef. Michael is pleased by the glass ketchup bottles, but we’re here for the metal straws.
Peter Levitt is the manager at Saul’s. He got rid of plastic foodware years ago after seeing a viral video of a plastic straw being pulled out of the nose of a sea turtle. This video has been viewed more than 37 million times and is thought to be the genesis of the anti-straw movement.
“I've never forgotten it.” He says. “The image remains in me. And just the image of the ocean waters in the middle of nowhere looking like plastic dumps. We just kept asking ourselves, is there another way we could put a straw in front of people that wouldn't have the ramifications of a plastic straw?”
Straws are only a small fraction of the plastic we throw away. Starbucks and McDonalds are voluntarily phasing out plastic straws, but what about all the other plastic they use? A lot of people — across the political spectrum — are skeptical of these laws. Tucker Carlson of Fox News called them an “Irrelevant part of Americas’ very real garbage epidemic.”
Elizabeth Warren actually agrees with him. In a CNN climate town hall, she said, “They wanna be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your lightbulbs, and your straws, and your cheeseburgers, when seventy percent of the carbon and pollution we’re throwing into the air comes from three industries.”
So are these laws just here to make us feel better? What about the expense? Metal straws cost Peter Levitt around three dollars each, which is nearly a thousand times more than a plastic straw. He says it’s worth it.
“If it doesn't get lost, or stolen or dropped in the garbage, it can literally have thousands of reuses. If you count the number of iced teas, Cokes, and sodas we serve, that's literally a few hundred thousand plastic straws a year that we didn’t generate.”
The metal straws at Saul’s also work really well.
We leave Saul’s and set our sights on San Francisco — where a million straws are used every day. The law here is stricter than the state law. It says most plasticware will have to be compostable by 2020. Michael and I go to E Tea, a pint-sized boba place in Chinatown. Michael’s never had Boba and is overwhelmed by the countless fruit and tea flavors. An extensive survey of straw varieties wouldn’t be complete without Boba, because you need an extra thick straw to suck the chewy tapioca balls from the bottom of the cup. These straws are made out of paper.
“They're like a blow dart or something.” Michael says, “you could hunt small birds with these things.”
Alice Poon, the owner of E Tea says paper straws cost three times more than plastic. She says seventy percent of people complain about them. But despite the added cost, she didn’t raise prices. And even after all the complaints, she says she cares about the environment and supports further restrictions on plastic. The paper Boba straws worked well, but in the end the verdict was unanimous. We preferred metal straws over all the other alternatives.
But what about these straw laws? Are they useful or just a distraction? Eliminating plastic bags or straws won’t drastically reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills. But maybe these laws are small victories that will create cultural awareness. They might pave the way for action that can make a difference.