In August 2015, a Youtube video of a sea turtle getting a plastic straw pulled out of its nose went viral. For many, it was a harsh wake up call.
The movement to ban plastic pollution in the ocean has been around for decades, and yet 8 billion metric tons of plastics ranging from vehicle parts to garbage bags to microbeads found in cosmetic products still end up in the ocean each year, according to Time Magazine.
The resulting damage to marine ecosystems is ubiquitous; it affects almost every species, either directly or indirectly, and extends far beyond what the average person can imagine. By providing a glimpse of what this damage can look like, the unsettling sea turtle video helped spark a submovement to ban the plastic straw.
Three years later some large companies have pledged to stop distributing plastic straws and opt for more sustainable alternatives such as paper straws or even drink lids that don’t require the use of a straw altogether. Ithaca’s very own Collegetown Bagels has joined this pledge.
As a company notorious for its high volume of plastic straw waste, Starbucks is one of the businesses at the forefront of this movement and has recently announced it will completely phase out plastic straws by 2020, a feat they estimate will eliminate the use of more than 1 billion straws each year.
Given that Americans use an average of 500 million straws daily, according to The Wall Street Journal, this is a small dent, but a dent nonetheless.
Other companies which have also joined the “#StopSucking” movement include Hilton, American Airlines and SeaWorld to name a few — not to mention the handful of cities like Seattle, Oakland and Miami Beach that have instituted entire city-wide straw bans.
Collegetown Bagels has joined the #StopSucking movement by first introducing paper straws, followed by plastic lids for cold drinks designed to resemble the familiar hot drink lids and thus eliminate the need for a straw.
“We’re trying different things at different locations,” says Gregar Brous, co-owner of CTB. Brous, who also owns the popular southwestern restaurant AGAVA, has long believed in a commitment to sustainability and is experimenting with various straw-eliminating strategies as they become available on the market.
Whether or not these strategies will sit well with the customers, however, is a whole other story.
“We started with the paper straws,” Brous says, “but we got a lot of complaints from customers. They don’t work as well and don’t last as long.”
This is often an issue companies face when shifting to more sustainable products. If familiarity and comfort are lost, some customers are less satisfied, and the company risks losing money.
To address the unpopularity of the paper straws, Brous resorted to two further strategies — one of which was selling reusable straws made of metal or rubber next to the cash registers.
Reusable straws have recently started gaining popularity as an environmentally-savvy alternative to their plastic counterparts. They come in different styles and colors and are often accompanied by thin brushes for cleaning, reusing and showing off environmental awareness. The only issue, according to Brous, is their cost.
“You have to really value the earth to buy them — they’re expensive.”
Last week, Brous’ other establishment, AGAVA, eliminated plastic straws altogether and bought 300 metal straws that customers have the option to either leave in their drinks to be washed and reused or buy for $2. This switch is easier for a restaurant to make since it’s fully service-oriented and a completely different environment, in contrast to a place like CTB where most customers are college students on the go and unlikely to return a straw for reuse.
Apart from selling reusable straws, Brous has also changed the plastic lids used for iced drinks to ones that resemble those used for hot drinks; in other words lids one can sip from without using a straw.
In order to make it clear that the new lids are meant to eliminate straw-use, each plastic cup now comes with a sticker that reads a different message about the harm that plastic straws inflict on the environment and the benefit of using the lids instead.
But are these new lids really reducing straw usage?
“I think they’re a step in the right direction towards the elimination of plastic straws, but it needs to be made more clear how to use them,” said Finan Malcolm ’20. “I see people using the new lids with straws all the time. That’s just increasing the amount of total plastic waste generated.”
When asked about the fact that students are still using straws with the new lids, Brous explained that when it comes to making small changes, it’s more about getting the conversation started.
“We have a unique opportunity with so many young people from Ithaca College and Cornell as our customers,” says Mimi Mehaffy, another co-owner of CTB.
“If we can move the bar just slightly and make changes that will make them think, they’ll continue to carry and build on that in their future endeavors,” Mehaffy said.