Should Your Restaurant Ban Plastic Straws?

Single-use sippers pollute the environment, so maybe it’s time to consider more sustainable solutions.
African-American woman plastic straws
With more and more cities banning plastic straws, many restaurants are choosing to provide more eco-friendly sipping options. (Photo: Andrii Kobryn/Shutterstock)

Plastic straws seem so innocent. You pop them in your customers’ iced coffees, throw a couple stirrers in cocktails at your bar and gladly toss a few on the table when you drop off beverages at the start of a meal.

But think about the cumulative effect of all that plastic tossed in the trash after just one use. One group puts the number of straws used in the U.S. every day at about 500 million. That’s a whole lot of plastic that ends up in our landfills and oceans.

To combat this pollution, a number of cities have formally banned the use of plastic straws. But many businesses outside of these locales have voluntarily hopped on the movement, moving away from single-use plastic on their premises. So should your restaurant also ban plastic straws?

Here’s what you need to know about the movement away from plastic straws, along with some sustainable solutions that can help lessen the environmental impact of your restaurant.

Consider the environmental impact

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, with New York nightlife mayor Ariel Palitz (Photo: New York City Hospitality Alliance)

Between adhering to health codes and providing customers the convenience they’re looking for, using plastic products at your restaurant is hard to avoid. So why are some restaurants giving plastic straws a second look?

It has to do with their environmental impact, said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, an advocacy group representing restaurants and bars.

“Sustainability is really part of the ethos and missions of many restaurants. Businesses that hold up sustainability as one of their pillars are seeking quality alternatives to plastic straws, and realizing they don’t need to hand out a straw with every drink,” he said.

Customers have an increased awareness of how plastic straws can be damaging to the environment and marine life, as well. A video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck up its nose has gone viral, and hundreds of thousands of people have signed online petitions asking major chains, like McDonald’s and Subway, to do their part. More and more, diners are using their buying power to support movements they care about.

“A lot of restaurants have come out on social media to announce they are transitioning away from plastic straws and they’re received quite well. It can help get your restaurant positive attention that it doesn’t only serve great food and nice experiences, but it can do so with an eye on creating a more sustainable planet,” said Rigie.

Related: 6 Ways to Promote Your Restaurant on Earth Day

Offer straws by request only

Does your bar or restaurant include a straw with every drink by default? Consider offering straws by request only to reduce waste and save supplies, suggested Rigie.

“Most drinks don’t actually need a straw. People will use a lot of things if you automatically give it to them, but if you switch to offering it by request, they’ll only ask for it if they need it. That action will collectively reduce our waste,” he said.

Subtle signs on your bar or tables indicating that straws are available by request will clue customers in to the new protocol — and show them your restaurant cares about the earth.

Related: 10 Affordable Ways to Cut Back on Food Waste

Switch to sustainable alternatives

Straws are an essential part of serving beverages at some bars, restaurants and cafes. The good news is that sustainable alternatives to the conventional plastic sippers have become increasingly available, said Rigie.

“There are straws made of paper, plant-based materials, bamboo and compostable materials,” he said. “Compostable straws have dropped in price, and we believe it will continue to go down as restaurants switch over.”

However, not all sustainable straws will work in the drinks you’re making. For example, bubble tea cafes and bars that use pebble ice will need very high-quality straws. Test a few options before buying a bulk supply, said Rigie.

Related: How Going Green Saves Your Business Money

plastic straws on beach

Environmental groups estimate 500 million plastic straws are used in the U.S. every day, which creates a ton of waste in our landfills and oceans. (Photo: Daisy Daisy/Shutterstock)

Keep some plastic straws on hand

Even if you’re trying to go green, you might not want to get rid of every last plastic straw at your restaurant. Some customers rely on them in order to drink independently.

“Some people with disabilities actually need a plastic straw,” said Rigie. “You need to make sure your approach to sustainability is inclusive of people with disabilities, as well.”

Eventually, restaurant supply companies might be able to come up with a sustainable solution that works for everyone. But until those options are available, it’s worth keeping a box of plastic straws alongside your eco-friendly versions for customers who need them.

Related: Restaurant Food Purchasing 101

Other ways to go green

Stopping use of plastic straws (or at least offering them by request) is just one of many ways your restaurant can become a bit greener. Look at other ways your restaurant can curb use of single-use plastic, said Rigie.

“Plastic bags are still a big one,” he said. “Think about how many people order takeout for lunch, pick up the food and bring it back to their office in a plastic bag. Offering those bags upon request will help reduce waste. You can do the same thing with your disposable forks and knives.”

Reducing plastic can be one of several sustainable initiatives at your business. Rigie suggested trying to source your seafood from sustainable fisheries, buy produce locally when it makes sense and purchase energy-efficient equipment.

“There’s such a strong relationship between restaurants and our oceans and marine life. Ending our reliance on plastic straws and becoming more sustainable not only makes environmental sense, but business sense as well,” said Rigie.

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