New York City Considers Going Strawless

If the city could pass a ban on plastic straws, it would be the largest city in the U.S. to do so.

joe coffee

Joe will eliminate all plastic straws from its stores in New York City and Philadelphia by July 2018. Image courtesy of Joe Coffee Company.

Editor’s note: We’re chronicling how tech is changing the way we eat and drink as we lead up to this fall’s Food Loves Tech. Our annual deep dive into appropriate food and ag technologies returns to Industry City on November 2–3, 2018 and you can get $20 off the regular admission price while our early bird special lasts.

Many New Yorkers are already considering ditching the straw—the one stuck into their iced coffee, smoothie, milkshake, cocktail. As soon as this summer, they may not even have to think about it.

A new bill proposed in May by Council Member Rafael Espinal, who represents New York’s 37th district (which includes parts of Bushwick, Cypress Hills, Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, Crown Heights and East New York), would ban all plastic straws from restaurants, coffee shops, bodegas, stadiums, anywhere you would have gotten one before—even sidewalk coffee carts. Should it pass, the bill would unfold over a two-year grace period during which businesses could seek alternatives. Paper straws are a popular suggestion, and perhaps the least expensive one. Other options include straws made from bamboo, cornstarch, metal and glass.

Erika Tannor, a spokeswoman for the council member, explained that Council Member Espinal decided to propose the straw ban after learning about a dead sperm whale that had washed onto a Spanish beach, its stomach and intestines filled with over 60 pounds of plastic. He is simultaneously sponsoring a bill that would ban the sale of single-use plastic bottles at public beaches and parks.

Council Member Espinal is hardly alone in his efforts: 10 council members and over 200 businesses have signed on in support of the bill, and he’s working in tandem with Give a Sip, a campaign out of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the New York Aquarium (which WCS operates). The campaign’s business and restaurant partners vary widely and include the Brooklyn Museum, Estela, the Yemeni American Merchants Association, the Dead Rabbit, Luke’s Lobster, Craft, Eataly and the New York City Audubon Society. Two more ocean-advocacy organizations, The Oceanic Standard and the Lonely Whale Foundation (the latter of which helped lead Seattle’s straw ban campaign), have served as advisors to Give a Sip.

Why straws? Unlike many plastic products, plastic straws can almost never be recycled, and they are used at an incredible rate: According to Espinal’s office, over 500,000 plastic straws are used—and disposed—every day in the U.S. And, said John Calvelli, Executive Vice President of Public Affairs for WCS, “We realized that if New York City could pass a ban on plastic straws, it would be the largest city in the U.S. to do so”—Seattle passed a ban in 2017 that will go into effect July 2018—“and would send a message to the world that this can be done.” At our current rate of consumption, he said, there may be more plastic in the ocean by weight than fish by 2050. And straws are one of the 10 most regularly identified pieces of trash at beach cleanups.

The demand is so great that when Joe Coffee Company co-founder Jonathan Rubinstein decided his cafés would go plastic-straw-free, his usual paper goods supplier told him that they might not be able to meet his request for non-plastic straws for a few months because so many businesses were beginning to inquire about their straw options.

“Consumers are realizing the effect of their consumptive habits,” Tannor said. “We’re taking matters into our own hands.” Neither Tannor and Calvelli has received any negative feedback to the proposed ban. And businesses are finding that they could actually cut costs by simply not offering straws at all, or offering them only when requested. The demand is so great that when Joe Coffee Company co-founder Jonathan Rubinstein decided his cafés would go plastic-straw-free, his usual paper goods supplier told him that they might not be able to meet his request for non-plastic straws for a few months because so many businesses were beginning to inquire about their straw options.

Joe will eliminate all plastic straws from its stores in New York City and Philadelphia by July 2018. They have opted for compostable cornstarch straws even though, Joe co-founder Jonathan Rubinstein said, at 2 cents per straw, they cost four times as much as their plastic counterparts. “It’s karmically worth it,” he said, adding that the company used 1 million straws last year, and that the cost of the new straws will not be reflected in their drink prices. The cafés will also donate 20 percent of its July sales of boxes of Joe Specialty Instant Coffee to the nonprofit The Ocean Cleanup, and offer a discount to customers who bring their own reusable coffee mugs and tumblers.

Joe is one of many cafés and restaurants that has, over the past few years, begun moving towards biodegradable disposables. But straws? “We were like, oh my god, we’ve never even thought of straws,” Rubinstein said. “I wish we’d done it earlier.”

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Caroline Lange

Caroline Lange is a writer and cook based in Brooklyn, NY.