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Our Resident Bartender Makes a Strong Case for Nixing Plastic Straws

Our Resident Bartender Makes a Strong Case for Nixing Plastic Straws

“Hey! Sweetie!”
Startled, I whipped around to the customer hollering at the bar, his finger sternly beckoning me as he nodded at the Jack and Coke I had just placed in front of him.
“Yeah?” I asked as meekly as only a newbie bartender could.
“Two straws. Always give me two straws.”
“Oh. OK. Sorry.” The ice clinked as I popped in another one.
He winked at me.
“Double barrel, Baby.”

“Double barrel” became my industry habit for 13 years after getting schooled on the supposed etiquette of these miniature hollow plastic vessels—until the day I saw the heartbreaking sea turtle video on YouTube. That’s when I vowed to curb my plastic straw habit. I soon discovered I wasn’t the only one ready to make a change.

Consumers, companies and governments worldwide are reconsidering their long-standing relationships with disposable plastic straws, and it couldn’t come at a more crucial time. The United States alone collectively tosses out 500 million plastic straws every day, the majority of which comes from the service industry. These cannot be recycled, and they will never, ever disappear.

“With such an expansive industry comes a lot of power,” says Michael Mason, director of restaurants, bars and events at the Chicago Athletic Association, whose locations all made the switch to reusable stainless-steel straws last spring. “We, as an industry, have the duty to limit the environmental impact as much as possible.”

It’s one thing for companies with clout to pull off the switch, but what does the transition look like for the average mom-and-pop establishment wanting to do its part? I decided to find out. I work in an establishment in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where there are more four-wheelers than cars parked out front.

I nervously showed up to the bar and dumped out my experimental arsenal of rainbow silicone, rustic bamboo and sleek stainless-steel straws. Would I be sent packing, cutesy straws in tow?


Surprisingly, I’ve never met a group of people who respected the outdoors more. I shouldn’t have been nervous at all when I placed Bloody Mary cocktails garnished with colorful silicone in front of two guests.

“Hey, cool!” one customer exclaimed. “Are you using these to try to get away from plastic?”

“Yeah!” I responded, maybe a little too enthusiastically.

Guests loved the stainless-steel straws, short enough to be the perfect match for a stately rocks glass. One customer liked that she could get more cocktail with each sip. Another guest pointed out that it actually felt more sophisticated than using the flimsy plastic stirrers.

A valid issue, however, was raised: “How long do you think these will last before they’re stolen or accidentally thrown out?” Perhaps that’s one reason some companies opt for alternatives that still remain disposable.

Chicago-based restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) is transitioning its 120 locations to paper, biodegradable plastic or wheat stems from U.S.-based HAY! Straws. R.J. Melman, president of LEYE, says the company lets each restaurant decide which straw suits them best.

“We had to think about the straws for milkshakes at R.J. Grunts and the crazy straws at (tiki bar) Three Dots and a Dash,” he explains. “Also, the type of concept (is) important to keep in mind when choosing between elegant, thin straws or wider-set ones.”

Though paper straws were standard before plastic took over in the 1960s, guests are still wary of a product they assume will quickly go soggy. Companies like Aardvark Straws, however, the only U.S. producer of paper straws, have done the research to ensure a durable product.

The paper tubes I tested lasted more than three hours in a glass of homemade root beer, so it’s safe to say they will not deteriorate by the time you finish a beverage. For cleansing, all of the reusable straws come with a few skinny bristle brushes that fit the width of the tube for easy handwashing (A bucket of soapy water or sink if you don’t have a dishwasher will do). They are all dishwasher safe, but it depends on the model of the machine. Some don’t have cages that straws won’t slip through.

Consumers want to support businesses that support the movement to keep plastic from piling up in our oceans and landfills. There are countless alternatives to plastic that are friendlier to our planet. Just experiment and you’ll find one that works best for your business.

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