The Last Straw?

For the past 50 years, almost anyone who ordered a cold soda, iced coffee or other iced beverage received a plastic straw. But these days, reusable straws made of metal, silicone, wood or durable plastic are popping up everywhere. What’s behind this trend, and how will it affect the restaurant industry?

Restaurants and coffee shops phasing out straws

Starbucks announced in early July it will stop providing disposable plastic straws in its stores by 2020. That gives the company 18 months to phase out the straws worldwide.

Starbucks customers will have several options once the plastic straws disappear. The first stores to implement the change are offering plastic lids that can be used without straws. These lids have been used on a few specialty drinks like the draft nitro and will soon be used on all Starbucks iced drinks. Customers can also bring their own reusable cup; Starbucks-branded versions are sold at most Starbucks locations. There will still be straws on hand for customers who request them.

Other companies have announced similar plans. Bon Appétit, which has been recognized for its work to “green” its operations, pledged this May to remove plastic straws from its cafes and restaurants worldwide. McDonald’s plans to eliminate plastic straws from its restaurants in the UK and Ireland. Marriott International, Hyatt, Disney theme parks, Royal Caribbean and American Airlines have all promised to phase out disposable plastic straws.

Public opinion driving change

What’s driving this trend? Part of it is the growing number of cities with straw bans. A decade ago, Seattle, the home of Starbucks, passed a ban on disposable plastic straws and utensils provided by restaurants and cafes. The ban finally went into full effect in the summer of 2018. Now, food service establishments may provide straws only upon customer request and the straws must be compostable.

Another driver is customer opinion. Consumers are realizing the convenience of plastic, combined with the explosion in iced coffee’s popularity have created a deluge of disposable straws and cups.1 These and other disposable plastics take a major toll on the environment, especially beaches, the ocean, and marine life, and the public is starting to take notice. In turn, companies across the industry have been feeling pressure to green their images.

Will Starbucks’ pledge make a difference? The Guardian reports the new Starbucks lids contain a tiny bit more plastic than the current lids plus straws combined.2 On the other hand, the new lids will be recyclable, while the plastic straws are not. As long as a sizable number of customers do recycle the new lids, the move will help keep waste out of landfills, off beaches, and out of the ocean. Plus, the company’s decision will likely influence others in the restaurant industry to look into alternatives to plastic.

Food service businesses looking for greener options

Of course, phasing out straws is only the first step. Reducing the number of disposable cups in use could potentially have much more impact. Many coffee shops and other restaurants already sell branded reusable mugs and cups for hot and iced drinks. Some companies have explored opportunities like discount programs for customers who bring in their own mug, but this has not yet caught on at a larger scale.

Other organizations are replacing plastic with paper, the previous standard before plastic straws became popular in the 1960s.2 Compostable straws are another possibility.

The future for straws

We could be in the early stages of a much bigger trend. New York is considering a ban on food service disposables similar to Seattle’s. In Santa Cruz, CA, businesses can only give out straws if the customer asks for one. The most extreme ban so far? The Indian state of Maharashtra banned almost all disposable plastics in an effort to tackle the severe trash problems afflicting its capital Mumbai and nearby cities.

On the flip side, many other companies in the food service industry have decided to keep their straws for now. Although McDonald’s will replace plastic with paper straws in the UK and Ireland, shareholders voted in 2018 against expanding the phase-out to the rest of the world.3 And municipal bans have been passed in only a few, environmentally progressive locales.

The plastic straw won’t be disappearing anytime soon, but coffeehouses and fast food restaurants are some of the biggest users of disposable plastics in the food industry. If industry like Starbucks and McDonalds cut down on plastic use, we might see others follow suit.