Not The Last Straw, But A Different One
This week, coffee giant Starbucks announced that it was phasing out the use of plastic straws in its stores, instead using what some are calling “adult sippy cup” lids. Other restaurants have also made the move to scale back use of the ubiquitous plastic drinking straw, while some municipalities have considered total straw bans.
New York Magazine food business reporter Clint Rainey joins Ira to talk about some of the alternatives companies are considering to plastic straws, from compostable paper straws to pasta tubes to reusable metal straws, and about the challenges restaurants need to address—from durability, to price, to usability by people with disabilities.
Clint Rainey writes about the food industry for New York Magazine. He’s based in New York, NY.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. This week, coffee giant Starbucks said it would start phasing out plastic straws in its stores, moving instead to sort of an adult sippy cup lid by 2020. And they are not alone because other restaurants and at least one airline, American, are also moving away from the ubiquitous plastic straw, something spurred by environmental concerns, other times by government regulations.
But what’s next for your beverage if you don’t have the straw? Joining me now is Clint Rainey. He writes about the food industry for New York Magazine. Welcome to Science Friday.
CLINT RAINEY: Thanks for having me on.
IRA FLATOW: What’s the reasoning behind these shifts away from straws? Just too many cluttering up the environment?
CLINT RAINEY: Basically, yeah. The number that you always see cited is 500 million straws in America thrown out each day. There’s a little bit of dispute about sort of the provenance of that stat. Apparently there has never been an official study done into the number of straws that we throw out. But people agree it’s probably more or less correct.
So we’re throwing away over 100 billion of them a year. That’s enough to circle the Earth a couple of times. And they’re not recycled easily. The straw is able to sort of, I guess, literally fall through the cracks, if you want to talk about it that way, when they’re going to the recycling machinery.
IRA FLATOW: And there’s so many of them because they’re so cheap to make.
CLINT RAINEY: Exactly.
IRA FLATOW: And so is finding an alternative very hard to the straw? How hard is that?
CLINT RAINEY: I think that there’s certainly a lot of options out there already. But right, the one that’s going to make a viable claim as the new straw moving forward, I’m not really sure. Certainly paper is the material that a lot of people are gravitating towards. Costwise, it can be similar. This company, Aardvark, is sort of like the industry leader in paper straw manufacturing right now.
And it claims its straws cost one penny more than the plastic ones, which is– I mean, it can add up. But they also claim if you hand them out on request instead of just giving them out by default to customers that you might even make some money on the trade-off.
IRA FLATOW: And that seems to be one of the keys, that it’s not going to take a lot of replacement to make a big difference, is it?
CLINT RAINEY: Right, right. And it’s sort of a culturally ingrained habit that we have. When we are given a cold beverage, especially, we think, where’s the straw? But if you just make yourself– which is something I started doing after I read this thing– drink cold drinks without a straw, it’s just fine. You know, you’re not exactly losing anything.
IRA FLATOW: Are people coming up with– you brought some examples of straw alternatives. Show us what you got.
CLINT RAINEY: I did. So I guess I’ll start with the most ridiculous one, in my opinion, which I can just–
IRA FLATOW: Throw one out here.
CLINT RAINEY: There you go. If this looks like a piece of Bucatini pasta to you, that’s because that’s exactly what that is.
IRA FLATOW: I was going to say, long piece of tubular pasta.
CLINT RAINEY: Yeah. It’s, like, about an 8 inch long piece of pasta. And this comes from a restaurant and private beach in Malibu called the Paradise Cove Beach Cafe. The owner sent me some in the mail that he didn’t package very well. So this is actually half the number I was sent. The others came in a bunch of pieces. Yeah, so they–
IRA FLATOW: They give that out to their customers?
CLINT RAINEY: They switched over entirely, right. Yeah he said they were going through about a 100 million plastic straws a year.
IRA FLATOW: One place.
CLINT RAINEY: Yeah, one place. And they decided to look into what the alternatives were. He had this, like, Yahoo moment where he remembered going to Italy and seeing these giant pieces of pasta. And these are sourced from Italy.
I mean, it’s sort of a gimmicky thing, too. They can claim to be the beach restaurant that serves you your margarita with a giant piece of pasta sticking out of it. He says they last four hours, thereabouts, in liquid. And I put that to the test. It does last about four hours. Then it melts away into, like, a pretty gross-looking wet pasta noodle. But–
IRA FLATOW: What else do you have?
CLINT RAINEY: So I brought just kind of your standard paper straw, as well. This is–
IRA FLATOW: That’s an old fa– I remember those. I’m old enough to remember paper straws.
CLINT RAINEY: These actually go back to 1888. Most people–
IRA FLATOW: Not me, but the straws.
CLINT RAINEY: Exactly. This was created by a guy named Marvin Stone. He was an inventor who was tired of getting little pieces of literal straw– that’s what was used at the time– in his mint juleps. And he so he fashioned this machine that could swirl paper with some glue and then some wax on the outside into a cylindrical structure that you can drink out of. And the company I mentioned earlier, Aardvark, is the sort of modern day version, modern day company that he started back at the end of the 19th century. I also brought a metal one.
IRA FLATOW: A metal straw?
CLINT RAINEY: Yeah. I mean, these have been around for a long time, too. This is actually my own straw. I was given it as a part of a Christmas gift, I don’t know, probably two or three years ago. But the plus side to this is that it’s always reusable. The plastic and pasta have a very limited shelf life. But the metal can be re-used into perpetuity.
The downsides are that they’re very expensive and that they require a very cumbersome cleaning process. They have a brush you have to run through the center of them, especially if they’re being used at a restaurant that goes through a lot of straws. The staff isn’t going to appreciate that job, probably. So yeah, so those are– the pasta one’s a little bit of an outlier. But the metal and paper are the two big alternatives that places are turning to.
IRA FLATOW: Maybe try an autoclave. That’s how you clean it. One issue that has been raised by people has been people with disabilities. Many of these alternatives are not good options. They need a straw, right?
CLINT RAINEY: That’s true.
IRA FLATOW: Do you think a restaurant is going to say no more plastics straws or they keep some behind the counter just to give out to the people who really need them?
CLINT RAINEY: That, from the people I spoke with, that is the system that they seem to be gravitating towards right now. Union Square Hospitality Group– which is where that paper straw that I held up a second ago actually came from. It came from Gramercy Tavern– they have a similar system where they’re holding onto a couple that can be used on request.
And the metal ones are particularly bad if you have some sort of tremor or something like that. That would be a bad thing to be forced to have to use. So yeah, I think moving forward– I think Starbucks said this, too, when it made its announcement about the giant sippy cup was that it would just continue to offer a very, very tiny number of them, since the number of people who would be requiring one is certainly not going to be large.
IRA FLATOW: Are there drinks that are leaders in straw innovation?
CLINT RAINEY: There are. Obviously milkshakes and things like that are an area where you have to have a straw. You can’t do what I said earlier and just refuse to stick one in it. And this sort of came out earlier this year that within the boba tea industry, they’re a place where you can’t– you know, you have the straw because the tapioca ball at the bottom is going to be– you just drink all of the liquid directly from the cup.
IRA FLATOW: It’s tough on bubble tea.
CLINT RAINEY: Yeah, it would be pointless at the end. So yeah, they have been looking at ways to– I think it doesn’t help, the fact that their straw is an enormous plastic, historically a plastic straw– that if you’re looking at the biggest offenders in the straw world, theirs are going to come up on the radar first because they’re giant and long and thick and whatever. So yeah, they’ve been sort of at the forefront of rethinking how to find a plastic alternative for their drinks.
IRA FLATOW: But you know, necessity is the mother of innovation. Maybe, who knows, people will come up with stuff we haven’t even thought about?
CLINT RAINEY: That’s true.
IRA FLATOW: You know, maybe some kind of innovative straw that people say, whoa, why didn’t I think that? That sort of thing because now there’s an incentive to do that.
CLINT RAINEY: There is. And I mean, Starbucks, I’m going to say one thing about theirs really quickly, which I’ve also brought here. It is–
IRA FLATOW: Oh, that’s the new Starbucks lid?
CLINT RAINEY: Yeah. And that’s the thing about it, is it is extremely simple looking.
IRA FLATOW: It is.
CLINT RAINEY: And they basically had an engineer working on this in 2016. And she basically took the hot lid cup and made the hole larger in it. It’s an incredibly simple alternative.
IRA FLATOW: It’s almost like a beer can top.
CLINT RAINEY: It is, like if you popped the top.
IRA FLATOW: If you had popped the top and stuck that lid on it, it would look like a beer can top with that kind of opening in it.
CLINT RAINEY: Exactly. Exactly. This one, interesting side note, is still a polymer. I mean, it’s the exact same plastic that a straw is made of. It’s just, they’re going to argue, easier to recycle than those tiny little straws. But from a per– like, a square inch argument or something, I’m sure that one of these lids is as much plastic as was being used before by the straws that they were handling out.
IRA FLATOW: Just make it biodegradable and then we’ve got a new thing here.
CLINT RAINEY: That is the next thing that they will get pressure to do, I’m sure.
IRA FLATOW: Clint, thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today. Great stuff. Clint Rainey writes about the food industry for New York Magazine.