Mark Hibbard wasn’t even thinking about the environment when he decided he’d had enough of plastic straws and cocktail stirrers.
The bar manager at Bramhall Pub on Congress Street in Portland has lost count of the number of sinks he’s had to tear apart to clear up a clog of plastic stirrers. As for the straws, “many people just remove the straw instantly from the drink and put it on the top of the bar,” he said. “Somehow along the way, we got used to this being something that came in every drink, unneeded and unnecessary.”
One day, it just clicked how wasteful it all was. Now the pub is among a growing number of Maine restaurants and bars that are banning plastic straws and stirrers, offering them only upon request or providing alternatives such as paper, bamboo or stainless steel.
Plastic straws have become a poster product for environmental groups fighting the enormous amount of plastic waste making its way into oceans and landfills. In the United States alone, 500 million plastic straws are discarded every day, according to The Last Plastic Straw, an online movement to clean up plastic pollution. That kind of staggering statistic – along with a viral video of researchers prying a straw from a sea turtle’s nostril – has grabbed the public’s attention, and now restaurants and bars all around the country are responding.
Portland, however, has some catching up to do.
“Portland, I would say, is one of the last vibrant restaurant scenes across the country not to do this,” said Brian Kennedy, volunteer chair of the Maine chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.
The Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit, nationwide network of volunteers working to protect the oceans and coastal areas, is calling on all Portland-area restaurants to implement a straw-by-request-only policy, and hopes to convince the city to endorse a non-binding resolution supporting the program. The campaign will launch May 24 at a 6:30 p.m. public event at Maine Craft Distilling, 123 Washington Ave.
ALREADY ABOARD THE TREND
Some restaurants, such as The Green Elephant and jointly owned Eventide, Honey Paw and Hugo’s, already have answered the call. Woodford F&B on Forest Avenue pulled the trigger on its no-plastic-straws policy on Earth Day. Owners Birch Shambaugh and Fayth Preyer are both surfers who have seen lots of plastic waste on the beach and had been thinking about the ban for some time. Customers who ask for a straw get a paper one, and cocktails are stirred with wooden stirrers. Shambaugh estimates the restaurant has reduced its use of straws by 50 percent to 60 percent.
At Gritty McDuff’s on Fore Street, a concerned employee drove the decision to switch to an environmentally friendlier compostable straw about six months ago, said General Manager Troy Hanna. Customers are limited to one straw. Hanna, like many restaurant managers, was concerned about the cost of switching over. He used to pay $15 for 5,000 plastic straws; now he’s paying $150 for 10,000.
“You have to figure out how you’re going to make it work for the business, too,” Hanna said.
Hibbard made the Bramhall Pub completely straw-free at first, but then the bar added a drink to the menu that really needs a straw. The Siren is a gin cocktail topped with egg white and soda.
“This cocktail, the meat and potatoes of it, rests towards the bottom of the glass,” Hibbard said. So three months ago, he bought a pack of a dozen metal straws for $10, and then worried that customers would walk out with them, as other food industry folk told him they would. Not one has been slipped into a pocket or a purse – and Hibbard has decided that, even if they do eventually disappear, he doesn’t mind.
“If somebody’s going to swipe this metal straw, which didn’t cost that much money, and they’re going to go use that in their daily life instead of a plastic straw, that’s probably worth it in the long run,” he said.
CATCHING ON ACROSS MAINE
The “last straw” movement also is spreading to other parts of Maine. The Black Point Inn in Scarborough has ditched plastic straws. Blue Mermaid in Kittery banned them three months ago and now serves paper or compostable alternatives only upon request. It also has begun serving chilled water with no ice. Owner Scott Logan said he’s noticed that when a beverage is served with ice, “people 99 percent of the time require a straw with that.”
Walkers Maine in Cape Neddick opened March 10 with a policy of offering a metal straw only upon request. Since then, said co-owner Danielle Walker, just one person has insisted upon a plastic straw. Another new restaurant, No Coward Soul in Bath, makes paper straws and bamboo cocktail stirrers available to customers who want them – but no one has asked yet.
Robert Labbe, general manager of Sea Dog Brewing in Camden, estimates the restaurant has reduced its use of plastic straws by more than 30 percent since it stopped automatically putting them in drinks, including water glasses, this spring. Customers can still get a plastic straw if they request one, but Labbe said the restaurant is now searching for compostable or biodegradable alternatives.
Sebago Brewing Co. is using only paper straws in Kennebunk, with mixed reviews from customers, said Brad Monarch, president and co-founder of the local chain of brew pubs. The company plans to switch to a corn-based compostable straw in the next week and will use them at all locations, he said.
ON MDI, LOCALS TAKE ACTION
Restaurateurs and food businesses on Mount Desert Island are combating plastic straw use through a local citizens group called A Climate to Thrive, which focuses on sustainability issues. There are an estimated 180 food-related businesses on the island, and so far 44 have become involved, said project manager Jill Higgins.
The businesses are encouraged to sign a “Sustainable Food Business Pledge” that includes taking actions such as getting rid of Styrofoam, switching from plastic to paper take-out bags and going straw-free. Restaurants that want to offer an alternative straw are being encouraged to use paper straws, Higgins said, because compostable straws that are not disposed of correctly can end up in the ocean, and they are not designed to break down in sea water.
Leslie Harlow’s seasonal restaurant, Ironbound in Hancock, is not on Mount Desert Island, but she has been attending the sustainability meetings there because “it’s something I believe in,” she said. In March, she ordered at least a dozen different kinds of alternative straws and tested them all.
“Every single one of them sucked,” Harlow said. “And not suck like you can suck in the straw. They either left an odd taste in your mouth, they fell apart in the drink, or they were the wrong size.”
So Harlow just decided to ban straws outright at Ironbound. Her staff was “really worried” about the reaction of customers, who include conservative lobstermen and the local district attorney. “We’re not in some hipster, progressive area,” she said.
But the response has been positive. “Not one person has said, ‘Hey, where’s my straw?’ ” Harlow said.
Last summer, Ironbound went through 22,000 plastic straws. Now there are only 5,000 or so left, and Harlow is storing them until she can figure out how to dispose of them responsibly.
‘GET THAT PLASTIC … OUT OF THEIR HAND’
No one is as close to this issue as Joshua Frances, who plans to launch Waypoint Provisions on the waters of Casco Bay this summer. The business will deliver food from Portland restaurants to hungry boaters. Among other initiatives designed to keep the bay clean, Frances will give his customers only paper straws upon request and will keep a stash of reusable stainless steel straws on board to sell. He plans to buy them in bulk and pass along the savings.
“My goal isn’t to make money off those straws,” he said. “My goal is to get that plastic straw out of their hand.”
Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: