Some time in early 2014 Chris Dahlander, founder and CEO of eco-friendly salad chain Snappy Salads, first glimpsed news footage of a massive floating trash gyre in the central North Pacific Ocean. Also called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the 80,000-ton raft contains about 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. By fall, the chain had ditched plastic straws in favor of compostable paper ones.
In May 2018, employees from Chicago-based Intelligentsia roastery and café volunteered for a beach cleanup on the Lake Michigan shoreline. The inspirited group later told CEO James McLaughlin that the No. 1 trash item they picked up was plastic straws, and within two months, Intelligentsia had yanked plastic straws from all 10 of its coffee bars.
These two anecdotes aren’t all that different, except that the movement to ban plastic straws in restaurants never enjoyed the kind of momentum four years ago that it does now, amid a wider push by companies, cities, and states to eliminate single-use plastic.
Sustainability has always been part of Snappy Salads’ DNA; locations feature salvaged wood tables and LED lighting, while to-go orders are boxed into biodegradable containers. Switching to paper straws in October 2014 was just the next logical step. The chain partnered with Fort Wayne, Indiana–based Aardvark, which holds the patent on paper straws and manufactures them in the U.S.
“The straws were a lightning rod. People either hated them or they thought they were awesome,” Dahlander says. “But it was a great way to start a conversation about the oceans and the Pacific garbage patch. Ninety-nine out of a hundred times, once we had that conversation, they’d appreciate what we were doing.”
The 17-location chain has deviated approximately 1.3 million straws from the ocean since then, per Dahlander. Aardvark has also seen demand skyrocket—raising prices from roughly half a penny per straw (slightly more than plastic) to three cents per straw.
And the movement has legs. In July, Seattle became the first city to ban restaurants from giving plastic straws and utensils to customers. New York City, Hawaii, and California all have pending straw ban legislation, while cities like Miami have enacted partial bans aimed at businesses on the beach.
This summer, coffee giant Starbucks pledged to drop plastic straws from all 28,000 stores by 2020, replacing them with plastic sippy-cup lids and compostable plastic straws. It joins companies ranging from Bon Appétit Management Company to IKEA; even McDonald’s is phasing out plastic straws in some European markets.
“I think this generation is a little more environmentally aware in general,” McLaughlin says. “Then these little fires spring up that really resonate with people, like the turtle video.” (The video in question showed marine biologists pulling a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nose. Since it posted to YouTube in 2015, the clip has amassed nearly 31 million views.)
Intelligentsia has been testing all kinds of solutions across its coffee bars, such as offering complimentary compostable straws and reusable metal straws for purchase. Signs urge customers to think twice about taking straws at all. The brand is also talking to its lid manufacturer about developing a sippy cup.
It’s all part of a wider effort to take stock of Intelligentsia’s environmental impact, McLaughlin says. On the roastery side, that means recycling the thick plastic GrainPro bags used to transport coffee beans, and donating byproducts like chaff and burlap bags to local worm farms. The coffee bar side has been more of a wakeup call.
“That is where we do have a lot of single-use stuff,” he says. “For example, another area we’re looking into is cups. The recyclable paper cups can’t hold up to heat without leaving an off note in the coffee. It’s on us to push for it, though. Like [telling our suppliers], ‘Hey, we want this, and we’re willing to pay for it. Go and develop it.’ One of the cool things about this beach cleanup was the team came back and felt strongly about making this change.”
Straws are a relatively small symbol of our big global plastic problem, but by no means insignificant. Plastic straws were the seventh most common piece of trash collected in 2017 on beaches by volunteer cleanup crews from the Ocean Conservancy. Some scientists estimate that 7.5 million plastic straws are contaminating U.S. shorelines and anywhere from 437 million to 8.3 billion on shorelines worldwide.
Not everyone can afford to drop them, though. Advocates for people with disabilities say plastic straws, particularly those with a bend, help people with limited mobility drink. Many compostable and paper straws aren’t sturdy enough for many people with disabilities, and metal straws can cause injury as heat and cold conductors.
That’s why Mediterranean chain Cava will keep some plastic straws behind the counter on request when it phases out plastic straws in November. (Intelligentsia and Snappy Salads say customers have been satisfied with its compostable alternatives.)
Cava collaborated locally with Washington, D.C.–based Farmers Restaurant Group on Our Last Straw, a coalition of local restaurants, bars, cafés, and hotels working to eliminate plastic straws. The new straws are a non-soybean paper alternative. CEO Brett Schulman says it was the right time to commit system-wide.
But it’s also just one step. Next up, the brand is tackling composting. It’s no easy feat, ferreting out space to lease where the landlord allows on-site composting and finding areas that support the infrastructure for commercial composting.
“The work is ongoing to find sustainable solutions not just from an environmental but also from an infrastructure standpoint,” Schulman says. “We want to mitigate the footprint we leave behind. Straws were one small step toward the greater good.”