Suck It Up! Plastic straws may soon be a thing of the past

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Snack Corner

The National Association of Concessionaires is kicking off its 2018 Convention and Expo with the theme of disruption in the concession environment. As is customary, the trade association attempts to keep its members abreast of current trends with a multitude of programming and innovations. NAC has been prudent in tackling industry issues in the past, but the latest noise about plastic straws presents a new set of considerations. NAC is much like the rest of the world: To be or not to be? Do we contest municipal and environmental agencies over the issue of plastic straws, or do we allow the buying public to choose the course of action? The Government Relations Committee at NAC wants to be of service, so what can it do to support the membership and its constituents?

If you have been keeping touch with the news, there is a growing concern about marine debris. Many of the world’s eco-protective organizations have concluded that plastic straws are a contributing factor to pollution in the oceans. There is an enormous anti-plastic straw movement as a result of the toll on beaches and sea creatures. Americans alone dispose of approximately 1.6 straws per person each day. A very low percentage of straws are recycled. Plastic straws and stir sticks represent nearly 8% of all recovered plastics found on beaches and in the sea.

Corporate giants in the foodservice realm have begun initiatives that would alleviate the use of plastic straws in their drink service. Bon Appetit, a national pastry and café chain, announced it will eliminate the use of plastic straws in its 1,000 cafes in 33 states. Starbucks has also followed that plan, and intends to introduce recyclable lids, eliminating the dreaded “green” plastic straws. Southern Theatres and Movie Tavern stopped using plastic straws in their bars earlier this year. In July, Alamo Drafthouse, CEO Tim League announced that all of the corporate-owned theatres will do away with plastic straws and replace the sipping devices with biodegradable corn-based straws. Many other theatres are looking to follow suit, including mid-level circuits like Malco Theatres, which intends to eliminate plastic straws by the fall of this year. Most national circuits have remained mum on the issue.

New York City has been presented with legislation that would prevent restaurants from providing plastic straws; this would extend to sports venues such as Yankee Stadium, street vendors and, of course, cinemas. The bill would require any establishment that serves food and beverages to phase out plastic straws by 2020.

Malibu, California has banned or limited the use of plastic straws. One local restaurant has begun testing edible pasta as a tubing replacing straws. (Sounds like a wet noodle to me.) Miami, Seattle and Fort Meyers, Florida have also grappled with banning plastic straws.

This movement is not only happening in the U.S. but globally. The United Kingdom has formulated similar plans and is testing a return to paper straws. The problem with paper straws, though, is durability: Paper does not hold its texture or stability when introduced to liquids.

How does NAC fit into the equation? Does it support the elimination of plastic straws while still supporting the concession industry? How does it do both? Dan Borschke, executive VP of NAC, believes this is a slippery slope. Members report that plastic straws are the best device for consuming liquids. An added issue is manufacturing of paper straws. Manufacturers report they could not possibly make enough paper straws to serve the usage rate at this current time.

In truth, plastic straws represent a small percentage of plastics recovered, yet these items are small, float and end up on beaches where they are visible. Dianne Lofflin, the founder of StrawFree.org, told Daniel Victor of The New York Times, “I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the plastic problem. Giving up plastic straws is a small step and an easy thing for people to get started on.” That could be low-hanging fruit that gets picked, since the largest volume of plastics collected consists of plastic trash bags, cups, bottles and other vessels.

The easiest alternative seems to be allowing the patron to request a straw at their need. The American Chemistry Council has presented a lenient position advocating this precept. This notion places the responsibility on the consumer rather than the establishment. But isn’t that what theatres are already doing? Nearly all theatres have straw dispensers where patrons help themselves to straws. If plastics are a concern, why not decline the plastic straw? The argument might then become: Why are plastics even offered as an option? The pendulum swings back to the need for an instrument that will assist in consuming a beverage over time in a dark auditorium. There are certain beverages that are nearly impossible to consume without a plastic tube—namely, frozen carbonated beverages. NAC also understands the Americans with Disabilities Act and its requirement to support the needs of all people. Consequently, what position should a trade association take on a topic with such momentum?

Scott Defife, VP of government affairs for the Plastics Industry Association, is quoted in The New York Times saying, “We as a nation are not going to solve our marine debris issues by banning plastic straws in restaurants.” This might be the best comment to date. What came first, the plastic straw or the plastic cup?

Larry Etter is senior vice president at Malco Theatres and director of education at the National Association of Concessionaires.