The Last Straw

by Marin Stuart

It’s no surprise that one of the biggest environmental pushes of the year has been the ban of plastic straws and the search for sustainable alternatives. Arguably kick-started by Starbucks’ press release in July, the company stated it plans to replace its plastic straws with straws made out of compostable materials, as well as provide recyclable strawless lids.

This comes from research that shows plastic straws are among the top 10 plastics found during beach clean ups, meaning they’re emerging on shore from a plastic-choked marine ecosystem. One of the main organizations fighting to reduce the use of plastic straws, For a Strawless Ocean, details that even when disposed of correctly, plastic straws often don’t make it through plastic sorters due to their light weight.

Since Americans use more than 500 million straws daily, as well as a multitude of other plastic materials, this could mean that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight. In a similar timeframe, left unchecked, 99 percent of all seabird species will have ingested some of this plastic, which can often be “particles smaller than dust or powdered sugar,” according to For a Strawless Ocean’s website.

But what does this straw situation look like in Eugene, a city that prides itself on green alternatives? In a survey of University of Oregon students’ 10 favorite eateries, five claimed to use biodegradable straws, but all mentioned having eco-friendly “to-go” packaging in one way or another.

Those with compostable straws are Agate Alley Bistro, Sizzle Pie, Cafe Yumm!, Glenwood, and Laughing Planet Cafe. The majority of these straws are made of bamboo, corn, and other biodegradable materials. It is important to note that even though the straws they provide are compostable, both Agate Alley Bistro and Sizzle Pie only provide straws upon request. Sizzle Pie’s sauce cups and salad to-go boxes are also compostable.

Eateries that did not pass the straw test were Chula’s Cantina, Wild Duck Cafe, Tracktown Pizza, McMenamins (North Bank), and Caspian Mediterranean Cafe. These hotspots all use compostable to-go packing aside from lids (if provided) but still use plastic straws. Wild Duck Cafe mentioned it only provides straws if requested, and because of this, they order about a quarter of the quantity of straws they previously ordered.

Additionally, Wild Duck Cafe mentioned that many people who request water don’t end up drinking it, so they use it to water their plants. It is interesting to note that Caspian Mediterranean Cafe charges a $0.25 fee for biodegradable to-go packaging.

While no straw ban has been enforced in Eugene, many plastic-related bans have been passed in prominent states, including California and Washington.

Dating as far back as 2009, Seattle passed a polystyrene foam (more commonly known as “Styrofoam”) ban, followed by a 2010 ban on non-recyclable or non-compostable food packaging. Most recently, Seattle passed a ban on non-compostable straws and utensils and now requires restaurants to label their various waste bins.

Similarly, California began its biggest environmental push against plastic in 2014 when it passed Senate Bill No. 270 banning plastic bags from retail stores and later convenience stores and food services. Since then, multiple other states have passed similar plastic bag bans or charge a $0.10 bag fee. This law defines a reusable bag as something that can be washed, is good for at least 125 uses, can hold at least 15 liters, is made of post-consumer recycled material, and contains the information of the manufacturer, according to California Legislative Information.

Passed on Sept. 20, 2018, California Assembly Bill No. 1884 prohibits full-service restaurants from providing customers with single-use plastic straws unless specifically requested. Single-use plastic straws are defined by the law as a “single-use, disposable tube made predominantly of plastic derived from either petroleum or a biologically based polymer, such as corn or other plant sources, used to transfer a beverage from a container to the mouth of the person drinking the beverage.” A violation of this law, enforced by the California Retail Food Code, means a $25 fine for each day the food service is non-compliant.

Pressured by these new laws in neighboring states, Portland too has begun its push to reduce plastic straw waste. On Dec. 5, 2018, Portland City Council unanimously decided to replace the city’s existing plastic ordinance with the Code Prohibitions and Restrictions on Single-Use Plastic, which was made to include plastic straws in addition to plastic bags and polystyrene foam containers, according to the City of Portland website. This mirrors similar “by request” policies, meaning that businesses will only be allowed to give out plastic straws if requested by a customer. The new ordinance goes into effect on July 1, 2019.

“Besides overwhelming our landfills, plastic straws and other single-use disposables affect the health of humans and animal communities. Over 660 species, including sea turtles, whales, dolphins and seabirds, are impacted and in many cases die from ingesting or becoming entangled in the plastic debris. A lot of people feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the plastic problem. This is a small but important step in the right direction,” said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.

With an abundance of alternatives, such as paper, bamboo, and even pasta straws, there’s almost no excuse for individuals or food service entities to continue distributing harmful plastic straws. It is important to also keep in mind that each alternative has its own comparable environmental impacts as well. These straws, plastic or not, are used for an average of 20 minutes but will spend several hundred years on a beach, in the ocean, or in a landfill if not consumed by marine animals first. This small drinking convenience comes at a huge cost to the planet, as described by Ocean Conservancy, the organization that heads International Coastal Cleanup Day each year.

Despite the passing of plastic bans by legal authority, it will take the conscientiousness and effort of citizens in all states and cities to reduce our collective ecological footprint and take steps to preserve nature and marine life. It is important to note that even though there are compostable and recyclable alternatives, opting to not use straws at all is always the best option for reducing your impact on all environmental fronts.