Each year, more than 10 million tons of plastic end up in the worlds’ oceans. Most of that plastic is considered “single-use.” Single-use plastic includes plastic straws, bags, utensils, containers, and packaging that are thrown out after being used. These items end up in the mouths and stomachs of marine animals or make their way back to coastlines and beaches.
Where does all this trash come from? Unfortunately, takeout utensils such as straws and flatware are the primary source of plastic pollution.
Plastic in the Restaurant Industry
The use of plastic in the restaurant industry is often unavoidable. Restaurateurs often purchase ingredients or items from other companies that usually come packaged in plastic. In addition, food preppers and cooks often wear rubber or latex gloves, and plastic aprons are a standard accessory for dishwashers and bussers.
But what about the single-use plastics that are avoidable, such as straws?
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans used and threw away approximately 500 million plastic straws. Europeans use a staggering 25.3 billion. Most of these straws came from the food and beverage industry. Unlike plastic bags, plastic straws aren’t recyclable or reusable, so they often find their way into landfills or oceans.
If you find these statistics concerning but aren’t convinced the switch to alternative options is suitable for you, keep reading to learn more about your choices.
What Are the Main Alternatives to Plastic Straws?
There are two different categories of plastic straws alternatives: single-use and reusable. Single-use straws will likely be the best option if you’re a business owner due to their convenience, portability, and preference by customers. However, it’s essential to know all of your choices.
Reusable straws come in a variety of materials and styles. Glass, plastic, silicone, and steel are the most common. However, these each have their drawbacks.
Although glass straws won’t compromise taste like paper straws, they’re easy to break. Not only can breakage leave you without a straw, but it can also cause injury.
Steel is the most common metal used for reusable straws. The major downside is that it is greatly affected by the temperature of your drink, which could mean drinking from a very hot or very cold metal straw.
Plastic and Silicone
Plastic is unlikely to break or bend, but over time, it can degrade. It also takes a lot of resources to create plastic straws.
Of course, the biggest drawback of all forms of reusable straws is that you’d have to remember to bring your straw with you each time you might be out and about. However, offering a single-use option that isn’t harmful to the environment can make it much easier on your customers who prefer straws but may not want to keep a straw on hand at all times.
Keep reading to learn a bit more about the single-use alternatives to plastic or reusable straws.
Paper Straws vs Sugarcane Straws
Although reusable straw options made of glass, steel, and plastic are great options for individuals, these generally aren’t practical for the service industry. They’re more expensive, don’t degrade, and aren’t compostable.
If you’re set on replacing your plastic straws with a more eco-friendly option, then you’ve come to the right place. But before you choose your preferred straw, there are a few questions you should ask yourself first.
What is the intended use of the straw?
First, it’s important to be aware that some straws work better for hot drinks than cold ones. In addition, others hold up longer in liquid, and some beverages, such as milkshakes, require a thicker straw. Whichever straw you choose should be able to perform as you need it to.
How many straws do you use daily?
The number of straws you go through each day will affect what type of straw you choose, as some are pricier than others.
Does your establishment actually need straws?
For example, if the primary purpose of your straws is to stir coffee, you may be able to skip straws entirely and switch to wooden stirrers. Or, you could eliminate straws for in-house dining and reserve them just for takeout.
If you’ve answered each of the above questions and concluded that straws are necessary for keeping your customers satisfied, there are a few disposable options you can consider.
The two biggest contenders for disposable plastic alternatives are straws made from paper or sugarcane. Paper straws have a much longer history than sugarcane, but older doesn’t necessarily mean better. Here’s a quick breakdown of the two.
Paper straws were developed in the late 19th century by Marvin Chester Stone. He aimed to create an alternative to other types of natural straws. These early versions of the paper straw were made from glued, paraffin-coated hemp paper.
The straw’s popularity soared in the early 20th century when Stone touted their ability to promote a healthy lifestyle by avoiding direct contact between the mouth and the drinking glass. Paper straws were replaced with plastic soon after, but a recent shift toward greener options has caused paper straws to make a comeback.
One of the major complaints about paper straws is that they can get soggy very quickly. Although this is true in many cases, paper options that are made with higher quality materials can last for several hours with no sogginess or bitter taste.
Plants have been used to make straws in the past. Hay and bamboo are two common materials. However, sugar cane is unique in that it helps turn regular sugar cane, which is a highly renewable resource, into a resource that’s almost zero-waste.
Since 2018, companies in other areas have started making straws from sugarcane. These sugarcane straws are certified organic and 100% compostable.
Why Sugarcane Straws Are the Better Option
Although paper and sugarcane might seem like equally beneficial options, that’s not quite the case. In fact, sugarcane is a much more environmentally and customer-friendly option.
Paper Requires Deforestation
Although paper straws may be more environmentally-friendly than their plastic alternatives, they still require deforestation. Or, if they’re made from recycled paper, the paper still has to go through the recycling process, which puts out a lot of waste.
Sugarcane is More Sustainable
Sugarcane is far more sustainable than paper. For example, a sugarcane plant will reach maturity in about a year, so it can be harvested and planted annually. On the other hand, paper comes from trees that can take decades to mature and regrow. Not to mention, deforestation destroys the habitats of wild animals.
Contain No Harmful Plastics
The paper and adhesives in paper straws cause these straws to last quite a long time. Not to mention, certain glues can be harmful to the environment. Sugarcane straws use polylactic acid, or PLA, which can be extracted from tapioca starch. The use of PLA and sugarcane to make straws means these straws are 100% plant-based.
Contain No Dyes or Bleaches
One of the most appealing things about paper straws is the variety of fun colors and patterns they come in. However, those colors are created using dyes, and the paper of the straw itself is often bleached. As a result, sugarcane straws maintain their natural color.
Won’t Get Soggy
Sugarcane straws can last in a beverage for several hours, even lasting days in some cases. This can be beneficial for restaurants who like to refill drinks using the same glass the customer already had. If you choose a paper straw, you’ll have to replace the straw each time. With a sugarcane straw, you won’t have to. This not only cuts back on waste but cost, too.
Although paper straws break down far quicker than plastic, they aren’t considered biodegradable or compostable. On the other hand, sugarcane straws are fully compostable. That means you’re not only benefiting the environment by using sugarcane straws, you can also create a byproduct in the form of compost.
One of the biggest complaints about paper straws, especially poorly made ones, is that they can change the taste of a beverage. Despite the name, sugarcane straws don’t taste like sugar, nor will they add any sweetness to your drinks. That means you won’t have to worry about your customers complaining that their drinks taste pulpy or bitter.
How Are Sugarcane Straws Made?
When sugarcane is harvested and processed, one of the byproducts is a type of fiber or bagasse. Bagasse is essentially crushed sugarcane, or what’s left over after all of the juice has been pressed out.
Recently, companies have developed ways to create straws using this leftover bagasse. Not only does this remove the need for sugar processors to remove waste, but it also helps turn sugarcane into a zero-waste crop.
Once a company has acquired the sugarcane fibers, they turn them into material suitable for forming drinking straws. The straws are then made in much the same way plastic straws are.
How Else Can a Restaurant Decrease Plastic Waste?
If you’ve chosen to take the plunge and shift toward compostable drinking straws, why not look at some other areas where your business can become a bit more eco-friendly?
A waste audit will tell you how much waste you produce and what your trash consists of. It will give you a clearer picture of how much of your waste consists of plastic, food, and so forth. An audit will also show you just how much of your trash should actually be tossed in the recycling bin. You can perform an audit yourself, but outsourcing might be best if you’re a larger business.
Reduce, Reuse, or Recycle Where Possible
Another major contributor to ocean pollution is plastic bottles. If you offer sodas or water to your guests, consider scrapping the bottle and using a soda fountain instead. You can use glasses for in-house diners and offer recyclable to-go cups for those who want to take a drink on the road. Not only are these options more eco-friendly, they often have an excellent cost-benefit, too.
Switch to Compostable Options
If you’ve performed a waste audit, you might be surprised to find just how much of your waste could’ve been turned into compost at a cost-savings to you. You can sell your compost to composting facilities that offer commercial composting services.
Although composting in your restaurant might seem like a lot of work, you can use composting bins similar to those used by people who home compost to collect your waste. And, if it makes sense for your business, you can also add a composting can in your dining area for servers and customers to use.
If you want to lower the cost of waste removal even more, you could add compostable flatware, to-go containers, and, of course, sugarcane straws. Many large corporations have started to make that switch, and it’s proven very beneficial.
Offer Discounts or Incentives
If you own a coffee house or other small business that offers beverages, you could consider providing discounts to guests who bring in their own beverage container for drinks or refills. Although offering a discount might lower your profit on a single beverage, it can increase customer retention and cut back on the cost of disposable cups.
Skip Individually Wrapped Packaging
Instead of offering individually packaged condiments, consider using bulk options. For example, if you own a coffee house, instead of providing customers with mini-creamers, you can keep insulated pitchers filled with milk and cream on hand. Combine that with compostable straws and coffee stirrers, and you’ll have yourself a genuinely eco-friendly coffee station.
Making the switch to a greener business may seem complex at the outset. However, there are a lot of resources available that can help ease that transition. Switching to sugarcane straws instead of plastic is a great first step, but if you want to make a long-lasting impact, you can’t stop there.