In the past few months, many Newcastle businesses have started addressing single-use plastic straws, and I couldn’t be more invested.
I have conflicting opinions on straws.
I surge with rage when watching the viral video of the sea turtle hissing and bleeding when having a plastic straw removed from its nose, yet I regularly crave bubble tea, which needs enormous straws to slurp up the chewy black tapioca balls.
My morals and desires have never sparred so regularly since the bubble tea shop opened next to my home in Newcastle West. It’s not really possible to enjoy this drink without a fat straw.
But plastic is bad and it doesn’t go away. One estimate says Australians use 10 million straws every day, or 3.5 billion a year.
Straw concerns are growing faster than the recently discovered isle of plastic, between Hawaii and California. Evidently this island is three times the size of France. The popular documentary series War on Waste helped generate awareness on all of plastic’s problems. The recent Coles and Woolworths plastic bag showdown proved that, like single-use-plastic, the environmental morals of big businesses can be flimsy.
Straws are necessary for people with certain disabilities. Sadly the anti-straw movement has not always been inclusive. Surely there’s a way to reduce mainstream plastic straw use without affecting those who need straws? I don’t have all the answers, but I think about it a lot. What is the best way to reduce reuse and recycle? Should it be down to the individual? The business? The government? Should charities lead the way?
McDonald’s has announced it will phase out plastic straws across Australia by 2020.
I started asking around town about various establishments’ straw policies.
The restaurant industry can be wasteful, once you start thinking about it.- Paul Davies, owner, MoneyPenny
My local is Honeysuckle cocktail bar MoneyPenny. Recently they introduced a bamboo straw policy and got rid of their plastic ones. I asked owner Paul Davies why, and was delighted when he told me it was partially due to my whinging.
Read more: Money Penny is the place to be
“More and more people were commenting on it, and it was sort of like ‘well, OK, maybe we don’t need straws.’ What’s a way to do it with some branding that people will take with them?” Davies says.
Now, instead of plastic straws they offer sustainable bamboo straws with their MoneyPenny logo. They charge $1 a straw, of which 67 cents goes towards paying for the straw and 33 cents goes to the Australian Marine Conservation Society.
The straws can be washed and reused for quite some time.
Davies says that since they started the policy in May, they’ve sold about three quarters of their bamboo straws. They also have stainless steel straws available case-by-case.
“The restaurant industry can be wasteful, once you start thinking about it,” he says.
“(There are) packaged strawberries in plastic punnets, vacuum packing, little plastic sleeves. We’ve taken the first step, (but) there’s still a thousand other ways we can do better.”
The Press Bookhouse, in Hunter Street, got rid of their straws all together years ago.
“We had them in the past; we got them without thinking. It was for the mums and their kids as well, but, you know what, those kids got to learn!” owner Murrie Harris says.
On Lake Macquarie, the sailing club Belmont 16s introduced a straw policy in August this year in response to the War on Waste. Under this policy, self-service straws were removed and members were notified that staff would supply a straw with a drink only when requested, to accommodate for community members who need a straw for accessibility purposes.
“As a sailing club, located on the water, we’re very conscious of seeking out strategies that can reduce our environmental impact. This is just one of many sustainability practices we have implemented here at the club over the years,” Belmont 16s CEO Scott Williams says.
In the two months since the implementation of the policy the club has reduced its straw usage from 10,000 units a month to 3000 units. This saves $50 a month. While the financial benefit is minimal, the long-term environmental impact is significant.
Ethan Ortlipp is the co-owner of the Coal and Cedar cocktail bar in Newcastle and the Royal Crown Hotel in Dudley. About two years ago they removed single use straws and napkins, he says.
The Family Hotel in Newcastle West also decided to ditch straws in collaboration with The Last Straw, a campaign to reduce the use of the plastic straws in Australian venues.
“They suck,” their marketing manager, Zack Hearn, says of straws.
“As a business (we) didn’t want to negatively impact the environment where we could meaningfully avoid it, so (we) decided to take steps to mitigate some of the potential effects by ditching straws,” Hearn says. “Our philosophy is that you wouldn’t use a straw to have a drink in your living room while watching television, so why do you need one sitting at the bar?”
Overall, most have been receptive to it, he says.
“Straws cost very little as is, but we’d go through hundreds a week, so the fact we now go through none is significant. We have biodegradable paper straws available for use if you donate to our monthly charity and really don’t want to drink directly out of a glass, so there are options for those who crave a straw no matter what,” he says.
The Hop Factory, in Darby Street, uses paper straws, and in Cooks Hill, the Cricketers Arms Hotel is moving towards a paper straw policy after they get rid the of the last of their plastic. Four or five months ago, Papa’s Bagel Bar in Hunter Street switched to paper straws, and their chef, John Du’Bery, says they are struggling to keep up demand.
Mark Conway is the manager of the Happy Wombat, a Hunter Street gastropub. He’s aware of how wasteful straw usage can be, for example when people order drink after drink. He says one person doesn’t need 10 straws for 10 drinks. He’s noticed more awareness about straw usage.
“We have existing biodegradable plastic straws, but once they run out we'll move to paper biodegradable,” Conway says. “We will always have some for use, but a biodegradable option. I (also) tell staff to minimise straw use.”
Sprocket Roasters at the Newcastle Museum recently started using a biodegradable straw derived from corn starch that looks just like the original plastic straw.
Screamin’ Veemis, on Darby Street, uses a biodegradable paper straw sourced by manager Elise Glanz. She said her staff help educate her on these issues.
“We're always looking to improve what we can,” Glanz says. “Last year we made the change. We're doing something good for our town, if not the country as well.”
Taiyo Namba is a manager at Nagisa on Honeysuckle and Susuru on King Street. He says they are looking into metal straws. The problems are that the straws get stolen, they don't come cheap and are hard to clean. They’ve tried paper, but they don't last long enough.
“All in all, I think it's important for us businesses to change, as we consume the most of these disposable products. Straws are just the beginning; we were able to change all the take-away containers to biodegradable at Susuru and are looking to change Nagisa as well,” Namba says. “I think choices are still low and costs are higher, which for a business is detrimental with ever rising expenses.”
Davies, from MoneyPenny, also commented on the prohibitive cost of stainless steel straws, particularly for venues who don’t offer table service.
“At least 50 per cent of them get stolen and that’s being generous,” Davies adds.
I bought my first stainless steel straw from Estabar café in the East End over a year ago. If my memory serves me right, I paid $7 for it, and I enjoyed it righteously at happy hours around town until I forgot about it and it sat in my purse for a few months. I tend to be more of a wine drinker, especially during winter.
In 2016 the town of Blackheath in the Blue Mountains went straw free; all the shopfront businesses agreed to phase out plastic straws. Newcastle is on its way, but I did talk to a couple of businesses who were quite happy leaving the straws up to the individual. But perhaps if each individual Novocastrian saw how unnecessary straws were for able-bodied people, we could substantially reduce plastic in this town without even needing a policy or government intervention.
Imagine a future where everyone everywhere will be able to ethically and affordably enjoy beverages of all kinds, with neither fear, nor guilt, nor association with a political party.
I’ve figured out how to deal with my straw guilt regarding the bubble tea. Bubble tea straws are really easy to clean because they’re so big. I just put them in the dishwasher and use them again and again. I don’t have a bubble-tea keep-cup though, so my plastic guilt has not completely washed away.
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