Is this the beginning of the end for plastic drinking straws?

It's a lot of waste for not a lot of convenience, activists say.

It's a lot of waste for not a lot of convenience, activists say. AP

“Do you want a straw with that?” a waitress asked recently as she took my drink order.

It seemed like an odd question. I’m used to be queried about my dressing choice, whether I want the soup or the salad, or if I want a side of fries. But the straw in my Diet Coke was something I took for granted.

The server noticed my confusion. “It’s an environmental thing,” she explained. “We’re trying to ask everyone.”

That made sense—I had noticed the links my eco-conscious friends posted on Facebook about asking for beverages without straws and participating in Plastic Free July. What I hadn’t realized was that the movement had spread enough to impact policies at a neighborhood bar in small-town Wisconsin.

Americans use 500 million (!) plastic straws per day, and most of us don’t give them a second thought. They arrive unannounced in our glasses of ice water, cocktails, and smoothies. We use them to slurp up our beverages, and then they get tossed in the trash. And that’s just the problem: Environmental activists say single-use items like straws are unnecessarily wasteful at best, and at worst, they can end up in the ocean, where they become a hazard to wildlife.

The movement to eliminate plastic drinking straws has been gaining momentum in the past few years, in part due to the awareness raised by a gruesome viral video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose. Cities including Miami Beach, Malibu, and, just this week, Seattle have banned plastic straws. Alaska Airlines is replacing plastic stir straws and citrus picks with sustainable, marine-friendly alternatives. Even McDonald’s has announced that it will replace plastic straws with paper ones in all of its United Kingdom and Ireland locations by the end of 2019, with a rollout starting in September.

Efforts are underway in the Twin Cities, too, at large and local business alike. First Avenue announced in March that straws would only be served on request. HopCat, a craft beer bar chain with a downtown Minneapolis location, uses compostable straws. Meyvn, Uptown’s new bagel shop/bar/restaurant hybrid from the Saint Dinette team, hasn’t had straws from day one.

One of the latest businesses to make the transition is Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises—the Chicago-based restaurant group behind Big Bowl, Wildfire, and Twin City Grill—which will eliminate plastic drinking straws by October 1.

According to president R.J. Melman, the idea to phase out non-biodegradable straws in the company’s 120 restaurants originated with his brother and business partner, Jerrod Melman, several months ago.

“At first, our goal was to eliminate the use of straws altogether,” Melman tells City Pages, “however, we recognized some people will still require one, so the most difficult part has been identifying viable alternatives and ensuring their availability.” These alternatives to traditional plastic include natural and biodegradable straws made with hay, paper, or biodegradable plastic.

Melman notes that there’s been excitement internally about the plan, with many restaurants implementing the policy before the October 1 deadline. And he reports that customer reactions have been “amazing” overall.

“We anticipate some people will get upset about it,” he says. “But we will have great alternatives for those people. We compare it to non-smoking restaurants where at one time [it] was met with great opposition, but today you don't even think about smoking/non-smoking sections.” (Or, in the case of states like Minnesota with an indoor smoking ban, no smoking section at all.)

While corporate and governmental action is crucial to the movement to eliminate plastic straws, diners don’t need to wait for official policies. The Plastic Pollution Coalition recommends steps like requesting that your beverage be served without a straw and reaching out to local eateries to encourage them to serve straws only upon request (they even provide handy informational cards to leave with your bill).

And if your waitress asks you if you want a straw in your Diet Coke? Consider just saying, “No thanks.”