Local businesses turn to paper utensils, do away with one-time plastics

Paper straws are offered to Heine Brothers customers. | Photo by Rebekah Alvey

Frequent Starbucks customers may have noticed a difference in their morning cold brew or iced latte since last Monday. Instead of the green plastic straws, the coffee corporation is offering strawless lids for iced beverages as a part of a pledge to remove all plastic straws by 2020.

Starbucks is one of many businesses eliminating plastic straws. Hyatt, American Airlines, IKEA and SeaWorld have all announced efforts to reduce single-use plastic such as straws and plastic bags. In Seattle, food or drink businesses will face a penalty of $250 for using plastic straws, starting next year.

On a global scale, corporations like McDonald’s have plans to switch to paper straws in the United Kingdom and Irish restaurants in 2019 and have started trials in other countries including the United States, France and Norway. In May, the European Union proposed a ban on single-use plastics, including straws.

Many businesses have drawn inspiration from the rising nonprofit organization Lonely Whale, which started the #stopsucking campaign and challenge. People in the U.S. use 500 million plastic straws a day, according Eco-Cycle, a nonprofit recycling organization. By switching to strawless lids, Starbucks alone is eliminating one billion straws a year.

These straws cannot be recycled and have ended up in the ocean, where they are harmful to wildlife. According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, an organization focused on transitioning into circular economies, there will be more plastics in the ocean than fish by 2050.

Locally, some food and drink businesses have implemented a no-plastic policy before Starbucks unveiled the strawless lids. Popular local coffee chain Heine Brothers has offered customers a choice between plastic and paper straws since January at most locations.

Barista James Whited, who has worked at the Heine Brothers on Main Street for a little over a year, said customers usually don’t ask for paper straws and will just notice them at the counter. In addition to offering paper straws, Heine Brothers uses compostable cups and doesn’t offer sleeves or stirrers in an effort to reduce unnecessary waste.

Heine Brothers barista James Whited said customers tend to not ask for the paper straws but comment if they notice them at the bar. | Photo by Rebekah Alvey

Whited said customers occasionally complained about the paper straws getting too soggy. He said the straws work well for frozen drinks, but they can absorb iced teas quickly. Typically, he said, the store will go through the paper straws more than plastic, but from what he’s seen, it doesn’t make a big impact on a customer’s decision.

The Limbo, a tiki bar located on West Chestnut Street, has been using alternative straws since it opened earlier this year. Owner Olivia Griffin moved to Louisville from San Francisco and said she brought a lot of environmental awareness with her.

Olivia Griffin at The Limbo | Photo by Sara Havens

“I knew I wanted to eliminate as much waste as possible,” Griffin said. “Wherever there is an opportunity to do something more conscious of the environment, we will go in that direction.”

Through a free service provided to the Business District by QRS recycling, Griffin said almost everything used in the bar can be composted — from used napkins and tiki tools to fruit waste.

In a week, Griffin estimated the bar goes through four small trash bags of waste.

Instead of a plastic straw served with your cocktail, you will find a striped paper straw that Griffin said added something to the decor of the drink. Occasionally she said a customer will complain about the straw getting soggy, but she simply replaces it.

From an economic perspective, Griffin said the paper straws are slightly more expensive, but on a whole don’t make a difference. The paper straws she purchases cost four cents, while a plastic straw costs a fourth of a cent.

“You’re going to lose more money on bartenders over-pouring than straws,” Griffin explained.

As more businesses start adopting paper over plastic, Griffin said her straw supplier has been unprepared for the huge orders. She said this puts The Limbo on a waiting list for orders, but she considers it a good problem.

When co-owner Allison Casale took over the 47-year-old restaurant Another Place Sandwich Shop a year and a half ago, she immediately started the switch to biodegradable materials. She said all of the containers already in stock were Styrofoam or plastic.

During the first two months of ownership, Casale said the materials were replaced with paper sandwich wrappings, lunch trays, paper straws and biodegradable cups and lids. At first she said the switch was expensive for a small business, however, over time, they found ways to reduce the cost of using biodegradable materials.

“We’re a small business, so if we can do it, I think anyone can,” Casale said.

Another Place Sandwich Shop is getting rid of plastic straws and Styrofoam. | Photo by Rebekah Alvey

One example she mentioned was selling water cups for 15 cents instead of giving them away free. The 15 cents covers the biodegradable cup, lid and paper straw. So far, she said, no customer has complained about the additional cost.

Casale said she hopes Louisville follows Seattle’s lead in banning one-use plastics to increase the accessibility of biodegradable utensils. She explained it is difficult to find materials such as paper straws at local restaurant suppliers, and the sandwich shop will typically need to order containers or utensils far in advance.

This past weekend at Kentucky’s most well-known music festival, Forecastle, several “green” ideas were visible. J.K. McKnight, founder of Forecastle, said the festival is ranked second for waste diversion. McKnight said he couldn’t remember the last time single-use plastics were used at the event. All food vendors are required to meet a set of environmentally friendly criteria, including using biodegradable utensils.

Forecastle First Mate J.K. McKnight | Photo by Sara Havens

Additionally, McKnight said the festival considers its carbon footprint and tries to offset it. Since Forecastle was created in 2002, McKnight said music, art and activism have been equal pillars of the festival.

In order for future generations to have festivals like Forecastle, McKnight said it is important to consider the environmental impacts.

“If you don’t set standards, festivals have potential to go in the other direction environmentally,” he said.

In the beginning, McKnight said it was difficult to have these initiatives, and biodegradable products were expensive. However as the festival has grown, eco-friendly brands approach him to get involved, and the cost has gone down.

McKnight attributed these changes to a changing landscape for environmental activism. He said it’s not a difficult or “fringe” conversation anymore, and people have started to accept the changes.

“It’s bigger than just us,” he said.