In 1967, “The Graduate” proclaimed: “There’s a great future in plastics.”
A generation later, a video of an injured turtle called that into question.
In 2015, an eight-minute clip of an olive ridley sea turtle with a plastic drinking straw stuck up its nostril went viral. Researchers off the coast of Costa Rica spotted the reptile, and the extraction was chronicled in a painful short film. Those images lingered, and a backlash began.
“It was eight minutes of [researchers] pulling this straw out. That was it. That was my last plastic straw,” says Jackie Nunez, who founded The Last Plastic Straw movement to eliminate single-use plastic, in conjunction with the Berkeley, Calif.-based Plastic Pollution Coalition. Naturally, restaurants are prime sources of straws. She urges them to use metal or paper versions — or not to offer them at all.
Nunez will be in Newport, R.I., this month for a screening of “Straws,” a documentary by Linda Booker, narrated by Tim Robbins, spotlighting the environmental implications of plastic straws.
“They’re nonrecyclable, so they wind up in landfills, litter streets, and add to the estimated 8.5 million metric tons of plastic debris in oceans annually,” the film warns.
Or up the noses of innocent reptiles.
Nunez considers straw-elimination a low-hanging fruit. Customers can refuse straws; restaurants that specialize in slurp-friendly drinks can opt for straws made from recyclable materials.
“Straws are the gateway issue. It’s an easy thing to change. It’s tangible,” Nunez says.
Harvard University graduate student Emma Cohen cofounded FinalStraw to make it easier. Her newly launched Kickstarter campaign raises funds for a stainless steel, washable, reusable straw that fits onto a keychain and comes with a lifetime guarantee. Cohen worked in the pollution prevention department at Los Alamos National Laboratories, and she got the idea after traveling in Thailand and spotting so many plastic straws washed ashore. (Advocacy organization Ocean Conservancy ranks straws as one of the top sources of litter on beaches.)
“I think that straws have become such a hot topic because 98 percent of the time, you don’t ask for a straw. It just gets put in your drink. For someone like myself, who cares about waste reduction, it felt like an assault. It felt like I was getting assaulted with a straw I didn’t want, against my will,” Cohen says. The campaign has raised more than $800,000 in less than two weeks.
Restaurants are taking note. Thirst Boston, an education organization that hosts cocktail festivals, has encouraged restaurants to pledge to transition from single-use plastic straws by next year.
Quincy’s soon-to-open Idle Hour won’t even offer plastic straws — or cocktail napkins or coasters, for that matter. (The bar is made from marine-grade teak, which owner Mathew Freid says won’t stain as easily.)
“There was an online video with a turtle and a straw stuck through it, and it hit home for a lot of people,” Freid says. “My chef and I have both worked in restaurants for years, and we agree that there’s so much waste. Any incremental difference that can be made is a difference.”
Now, though, thanks to movies like ‘Straws’ and that viral turtle video, more restaurants are taking notice.
Plus, he’ll save some money: He estimates that every 5,000 straws cost $100 or so.
At Cambridge’s Café ArtScience, bar director Tenzin Samdo considers himself a straw crusader. In November, he learned about the Last Plastic Straw movement after hosting a “Last Supper” dinner with former White House chef and food policy adviser Sam Kass.
“He designed a dinner around what we’d be eating 50 years from now. It was fascinating for me. It blew my mind. It’s not that far away, but things like shellfish, a lot of the species, a lot of the animals we won’t be able to consume — we take them for granted” because of plastic pollution in oceans, he says.
According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight by 2050.
“In only the past 20 years, people have come to expect plastic straws in every drink, in an example of extreme waste being generated for minimal convenience,” Samdo wrote in a widely shared Instagram post. In the post, he pledged to stop using plastic straws, switching to metal, bamboo, or recycled paper.
He carries his own metal straw when out to eat. He also hosts seminars at his restaurant for industry colleagues eager to make the switch. Some alcohol brands sponsor these sessions, he says, hoping to discourage plastic use themselves.
“We’re throwing 47 tons of garbage per minute into the ocean,” Samdo says. “It’s insane.”
At the South End’s Frenchie, owner Sandrine Rossi — a former environmental engineer — will say au revoir to her saucy pink plastic flamingo straws this month.
“One more weekend, then it’s finished. We’re trying to be more conscious of these things. And the video of the turtles, with the plastic straws in their noses!” she says. “All plastic is bad.”
Rossi hopes to eliminate straws entirely, after having implemented some paper straws with little success.
“People were complaining all the time about paper straws. Once they’re in liquid for 20 to 30 minutes, they become mushy. My stance is, ‘Don’t use a straw any more.’ In Europe, we barely use straws. At least in France, only kids drink from straws. But here we like ice a lot, which makes it difficult to drink from a glass.”
Indeed, not all drinks lend themselves to straw-free slurping. At the Back Bay’s Revolution Juice, which specializes in healthy smoothies, straws are usually essential.
“Straws are a tough thing,” says owner Heather Costa. “Most people aren’t used to just drinking out of a cup.”
The store sells $5 metal straws ($7 with a cleaning brush) to discourage plastic straw use.
“It’s an investment,” Costa says.
Cambridge’s ArtBar will roll out a new drink menu this season and discontinue plastic straws entirely. Revamped cocktails are designed for sipping, not sucking. If customers request a straw, they’ll get a biodegradable paper one.
This plan is a bit more expensive but worth it, says beverage director Julio Henriquez.
“You get 2,000 straws for, let’s say, a box of $30, whereas you get 500 paper straws for the same price,” Henriquez says. “But we believe in the movement. We want to do our part.”
He relocated from California in late 2015, where this was already par for the course. He says it’s time Boston caught up and that the surcharge on checkout bags at retail establishments in Cambridge helped normalize the issue.
“I’m originally from San Francisco. For quite some time, I wanted to do it here. I tried to implement it before, but people weren’t ready. Now, we charge for bags in Cambridge. Now, people are getting more into a completely green movement. . . . It’s a movement I can easily say is moving from the West Coast to the East Coast,” he says.
True enough, this isn’t a completely new idea. Back in 2011, then-9-year-old Milo Cress started the “Be Straw Free” campaign, urging restaurateurs in his native Burlington, Vt., to ask customers if they wanted straws instead of reflexively providing them. Now, though, thanks to movies like “Straws” and that viral turtle video, more restaurants are taking notice. On Twitter, #skipthestraw and #stopsucking have become popular hashtags.
Speaking of sucking: At the Ritz-Carlton, Boston’s Avery Bar, guests can request cocktails with glassware that have built-in straws.
“It’s also called a vampire glass, just because you draw out the libation the way a vampire would draw blood,” says restaurant director Shiobanne Olivero.
But hopefully the transition won’t be painful for most customers. The Fenway’s Eastern Standard just switched to metal straws, and sibling restaurants, such as Island Creek Oyster Bar, are now making the switch. This feels like a happy compromise.
They use a recyclable, washable straw introduced by restaurant supplier Cocktail Kingdom. These polypropylene straws “are a fraction of the cost of metal straws, and not such a departure from a single-use straw,” says bar manager Jared Sadoian. “It’s not as jarring for guests to see but different enough to spark a conversation.”
After all, sometimes it’s just not feasible to go straw-free. Some drinks really are best slurped, not sipped.
“Tiki drinks can be challenging. One cocktail, the Penicillin, has a float of smoky Scotch. With a straw at the bottom, it’s this refreshing, gingery, honey-lemon treat, and the Scotch infuses itself through the drink. If you sip it, you just get a shot of Scotch,” Sadoian says.
Ideally, such woes are few and far between. And if customers can’t suck it up?
“You’d be surprised. Sometimes people don’t get it. . . . We do have a secret stash of straws, by request only,” says Meghann Ward, who owns Tapestry in the Fenway. “I always think, ‘What do you need a straw for, really, unless you have done-up lipstick?’ Other than that, there really doesn’t seem to be a need.”
“There are perils,” Idle Hour’s Freid admits, laughing. “The worst thing that happens is you get hit by a little bit of ice. The only time I use a straw is with a milkshake.”
And if straws become outmoded, other plastic items just might follow suit, Nunez says.
“The great thing is that you can’t talk about straws without talking about other items, like utensils. It’s the material we’re after,” she says.Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.