Pick A Straw…But Not Just ANY Straw
A random fistful of straws handed out at a drive-thru
A straw placed in every drink and water glass at a restaurant
Extra straws added to the carryout bag ‘just in case’
All are gestures considered to be good customer service; but are they really necessary? And what’s the harm anyway?
They all add up to over a half a billion (yes, with a ‘B’) every day in the U.S. That’s enough to fill 46,400 school buses each year.
According to National Geographic and the Ocean Conservancy, plastic straws are routinely in the ‘Top 5’ or ‘Top 10’ of beach clean-up finds.
Tina Mackenzie and Karen Davis, two of the managing co-owners of Outer Banks Brewing Station, are passionate about these seemingly innocuous pieces of plastic. A year ago, Mackenzie decided to eliminate them from their popular restaurant and brewery.
With the Atlantic in our back yard, she considers it self-preservation and NIMBYism at its best for Outer Banks residents to think twice before using plastic straws.
Mackenzie says, ‘Every piece of plastic ever made is still in the environment. [It]contains BPA, a proven harmful chemical. And as time goes by, plastic separates into smaller pieces, but never completely breaks down, transforming our oceans into plastic soup.”
It’s not surprising that the owners of the Kill Devil Hills establishment were eager to join the national campaign against plastic straws. After all, they already compost vegetable waste, provide three car chargers in the parking lot, use wind turbine power to offset their energy consumption, have never used Styrofoam, and even recycle spent grain from the brewing process as cattle feed.
Yet, the staff is very sympathetic to many reasons customers will need a straw: temperature sensitivities, dental work, swallowing issues, to name a few.
‘Excuse me, are you forgetting something?’ is one possible complaint when a customer assumes their server forgot straws. ‘Someone may have touched the rim of the glass,’ is another objection.
“We do train our staff not to do that,” Davis explains while motioning a 5-finger grasp of an imaginary glass rim.
“We train our staff not to preach. We just try to educate. No one drinks beer or a [hot] coffee with a straw. It’s just a habit to expect it with a soda,” explains Davis. We are just trying to reduce the plastic in the ocean. We live in an endangered turtles’ breeding ground.”
“Others really embrace it. One group – the whole family – had their own metal straws, sat down, and brought them out!” describes Davis.
Davis calculates they were ordering approximately 200,000 plastic straws each year. By giving them upon request only, their annual usage has plummeted to 36,000. And the only straws they hand out now are compostable cardboard.
So… what about these ‘new’ cardboard creations?
“The older people say it reminds them of their childhood,” Davis says.
As it should. Aardvark has been in the business of making straws out of food-grade paper since the late 1800s.
People of a certain age will remember striped, soggy straws unraveling into spirals before the condensation could form on their drink. The new generation of paper straws are nothing like that. With a glossy exterior and a beefed-up thickness, many may not even notice they are not plastic.
“It holds up to different liquids and temps … but not to teeth,” Davis says with a laugh.
Plus, the company reports that with today’s resurgence of all things retro, color-coordinated paper straws are adding vintage touches at parties and weddings everywhere.
“I like paper straws because I love the earth and want to live in a clean place… I hate litter,” says 7-year-old, Greyson Driskill one morning at Front Porch Café.
The popular coffee shop is owned by Susannah Sakal and her husband, Paul Manning. By using only paper straws at their three busy Outer Banks stores, Front Porch is preventing 80,000 plastic straws from heading to landfills (and oceans) this year.
Sakal says that the cardboard straws are mostly intended for cold drinks, but even in hot drinks, they last the duration of the beverage. She gives most of the credit for the shop’s environmental changes to their 13-year-old son, Townes Manning.
“He’s the one who pushed for it. He’s a surfer and an OBX native. This is his home, his beach, he takes a lot of pride in it,” she says. “Townes made initial contact with Aardvak and got the whole ball rolling.”
While Front Porch was already observing strict, behind-the-counter recycling practices, Townes added recycling bins in every cafe to encourage customer recycling. Also, he convinced his parents to switch their loyalty program to a flat discount when customers provide their own re-usable cup. This year alone, the latter effort could prevent 250,000 plastic and paper cups from going to landfills.
It was a chance, but prophetic, meeting with the founder of Patagonia that spurred Townes during a family trip out west.
“It will be up to you and your generation to clean up what we screwed up,” said the eco-conscious business owner.
Sakal says that 9 out of 10 customers are positive about the new policy and that they try to approach the inevitable complaints with education.
“We have as much signage up as possible, so they know we aren’t just forgetting [a straw]. Staff are very proactive in explaining it,” says Sakal.
In general, she says that the younger ones receive it better. But to prove that even older dogs can learn new tricks, said one customer, “Wow, I’m so glad, because it’s something I believe in as well.”
The disturbing images of plastic straws being extracted from live turtles’ nostrils have been widely circulated.
“Marine debris and single use plastics have been on the agenda for several years, but we have decided to focus on straws in the last year,” says Dia Hitt, Education Curator at North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island.
“Ninety per cent of the animals in the ocean have eaten plastic in one form or another,” reports Hitt. Culprits include plastic bags, bottle caps, balloons, and balloon ribbons.
“You name it; we’ve found it. For turtle rescues with a gut impaction… usually it’s some plastic that has to come out.”
The aquarium observed the nationally recognized, “Skip the Straw” day in February. Their event included mock dissections of marine animal stomachs, “where they pretend to pull out what they should be eating versus some of the things we find that don’t belong there,” says Hitt.
A pledge table encouraged visitors to commit to not using single-use straws and a selfie photo frame with #SkiptheStraw.
“So many times, people do not know what they can do to help [the environment], but this is very easy. It’s a very actionable item. All they do is take one action and change their plastic straw to something else, or skip it entirely,” says Hitt.
Brian Postelle, Public Relations Coordinator at the aquarium echoes her comment, “So much of this is awareness. You don’t have to be at the aquarium to make that pledge. Some people need straws for physical reasons … but those of us who are doing it out of habit to grab a straw with their burger? We want them to make that decision on their own.”
Postelle applauds the grass roots movement happening at businesses like the Brewing Station and Front Porch.
“They deserve all the credit, but we wanted to become a part of it. All of these businesses are in a unique position to see the impact. They see the ocean that’s right outside our door and where plastic can end up. It’s very visible. We have a lot of guests throughout the season. We are hoping we can send people away with a good message.” ♦
Outer Banks Ocean Friendly Establishments
Are you looking for local businesses that are dedicated to keeping plastic out of our oceans?
The Plastic Ocean Project and the Surfrider Foundation have teamed up to recognize merchants and restaurants that are committed to reducing single-use plastics.
“Regardless of recent legislation, these are the businesses who are keeping up with a commitment against the use plastic bags and straws,” says Samantha Burdick, spokesperson for OFE-Outer Banks.
In its first month, OFE-Outer Banks recognized the following businesses for pledging not to use plastic bags and offering straws upon request only:
The Cacique Shoppe & Duck Post Office -Duck
The Roadside Bar & Grill -Duck
Tortugas’ Lie -Nags Head
Trio Wine, Beer, & Cheese -Kitty Hawk
Wave Riding Vehicles -Kitty Hawk
Outer Banks Brewing Station –Kill Devil Hills
Front Porch Café (all three locations)
The Saltbox Café -Kill Devil Hills
Chip’s Wine & Beer Market -Kill Devil Hills
Outer Banks Olive Oil Co. -Kill Devil Hills
Do you know of an OBX business to be designated as an OFE? More are being added each week. See OFE’s Facebook page here for updates. OFEs receive a certificate for display and free advertising and promotions on social media. To apply, contact email@example.com
There are plenty of ways to learn about The Last Straw campaign and to clean up the plastics that are already out there:
- Come watch the documentary, Straws, on April 9th at 7pm at the Outer Banks Brewing Station. The half-hour film is narrated by Tim Robbins.
- Observe Earth Day on April 22 from 12 – 2pm by beachcombing for plastics. Representatives from the Plastic Ocean Project and OBX 5-Minute Beach Cleanup are sponsoring the event at Jennette’s pier.
- Help rid the beach of single-use plastics at any of the monthly “Adopt-A-Beach” cleanup efforts, at Jennette’s pier.
- Check out Surfrider’s local conservation efforts, meetings, and upcoming beach sweeps at:
Susan Selig Classen has been living, writing, and editing on the Outer Banks for over ten years. Her other published work includes articles in AOPA Pilot, Convention South, and Brain Child magazines. Susan was formerly the editor for Three Dog Ink Media.