In the battle against plastic straws, is banning them a good idea?

Published July 4 2018
Updated July 4 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Order a drink at a downtown restaurant, coffee shop or bar these days and there’s a good chance it will arrive sans plastic straw.

That’s because several businesses eagerly jumped on board the "No Straw St. Pete" campaign, launched in April to combat the menace of the indestructible plastic straw. The United States alone uses an estimated 500 million straws a day, which never degrade, can exist forever in landfills, beaches and waterways and threaten marine life.

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The effort is being led by City Council member Gina Driscoll, the website ilovetheburg.com, Bank of the Ozarks and several environmental groups. But council members and environmentalists are demanding more action, and have called for a citywide ban on plastic straws.

The distinction between a voluntary ban and a government mandate is significant for business owners. They say they want to help combat plastic straws — but not because the city told them to do so.

Pete Boland, owner of the Galley, was one of the first to change his straw practices. His tavern’s bartenders and servers have stopped providing straws automatically. Customers can still ask for one, in which case they’re offered more environmentally friendly paper straws. Still, he keeps plastic straws on hand for those who prefer them.

As a result, Boland estimated the Galley at 27 Fourth St. N has cut down on its use of plastic straws by 700 a week. Over a year, that adds up to more than 36,000 single-use plastics that haven’t been thrown away.

Still, even as a willing participant in voluntary efforts, Boland said he is "very reticent" about having to comply with new regulations in what he said is already a highly regulated industry.

Plastic straw alternatives such as paper, glass or some other material all mean a greater expense for businesses, Boland said. And there are too many variables when it comes to enforcing any such ordinance.

The Galley’s owner said he doesn’t feel comfortable with the idea just yet.

"With any type of ordinance or ban, we have to be cautious as to how we add teeth to that," Boland said. "I don’t think anybody wants the straw police coming around."

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St. Petersburg is far from the first government to consider such a move. Fort Myers Beach, Miami Beach, Seattle, Oakland and Berkeley all banned plastic straws. Similar legislation is pending statewide in Hawaii and California.

Coastal cities and states in particular are conscious of the impact straws and other single-use plastics have on their environment, said City Council member Darden Rice.

"In order for us to have something really meaningful and long lasting, we should look at a ban and know that St. Pete, we’re not by ourselves," Rice said. "This is part of a much larger trend across other cities and states but also globally."

Tampa Bay Waterkeeper Andy Hayslip said that while voluntary efforts are a nice start, they don’t come close to addressing the severity of single-use plastic pollution.

When plastic straws end up in the water, they break down into micro-sized pieces that often end up being consumed by marine life, Hayslip said. And when fish eat that marine life and humans eat that fish, those micro-sized pieces of plastic can end up in our bloodstream.

"It’s already worked its way into humans," Hayslip said. "We’re becoming more plastic."

Banyan Cafe & Catering owner Erica Allums also has cut down on straws at her two locations, giving them only to customers who ask. She said plastic straws are just the start of the conversation.

She’s hoping a ban — which she said is absolutely doable from a business perspective — can lead to a broader conversation about single-use plastics in general.

"Let’s get Publix and some of the other grocery stores on board for no plastic bags," Allums said. "I think that should be the next big step."

Whether its bags, straws or other plastics, Rice said the cooperation of chains and big businesses is key to any effort.

"I don’t think we should get too far ahead of ourselves patting ourselves on the back because we have a handful of local businesses stepping up to the plate," she said. "For the real change we want to see, we need to put pressure on these bigger companies."

Boland agreed, saying small businesses like his would have a lot harder time complying if chains like Chick-fil-A, Burger King and McDonald’s were still handing out plastic straws with every drive-thru order.

McDonald’s, one of the world’s largest restaurant chains, announced last month that it will switch from plastic to paper straws in its 1,361 restaurants in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The company will start testing alternatives in select restaurants in the U.S. later this year, but didn’t say in which cities or states.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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