It sits in the drink you just ordered at a restaurant, pub or lounge, fast food outlet or convenience store, offering an easy way to quench your thirst.
It can be bendy, straight, skinny or wide; it can even have a spoon to scoop a Slurpee at the end of it. They come in different shapes, sizes and colours – even shaped like a pair of glasses on your face.
The single-use plastic straw has been a staple of the food and beverage industry for decades.
While Washington, D.C. resident Marvin Stone patented the first straw in 1888, and San Francisco resident Joseph B. Friedman created the bendy straw in the 1930s, both were made of paper.
But by 1961, Fun-Time International was mass-producing plastic straws, changing the straw market by providing a cheaper, more durable product for businesses and beverage drinkers.
In today’s North American society, a straw comes automatically with every drink in most eating and drinking establishments, and it was something that Canmore’s Grizzly Paw assistant manager Heather Johnson cued into as she began to think about ways to move the business toward environmental sustainability.
Johnson saw an online video of a turtle with a plastic straw up its nose and brought the idea of reducing the use of single-use plastic straws to the Paw’s environmental committee.
“We decided to go straw free,” she said. “We will still have straws, they are biodegradable and we offer them on request, as there are people with mobility issues and food sensitivities.
“I can’t say we were the first in the Bow Valley (to go straw free), but I feel we were the first to start pushing other businesses to make that choice.”
The idea and the campaign for change isn’t new, and Johnson took a lot of inspiration and advice from the Straws Suck campaign in the West Coast resort community of Tofino. That campaign saw a success rate of 98 per cent, with 41 eating and drinking establishments joining the movement started by the Surfrider Foundation’s Pacific Rim chapter.
Johnson said the advice she received was valuable and included getting the rest of the community involved and the Bow Valley #STRAWSSUCK campaign was officially launched. She said the goal is to reduce single-use plastics in the restaurant industry in both Canmore and Banff.
The numbers at the Paw are encouraging, she said. While biodegradable straw options start at .01 cent more than regular plastic, Johnson said they have significantly reduced the numbers being used by customers. From Jan. 1 to July 31, 2017, before the switch was made, the restaurant ordered 44,000. From August to December, on the other hand, only 2,000 straws were used.
A lot of it comes down to getting the staff on board with the switch and that they are able to provide education at the table when customers request a straw. For children’s drinks, Johnson added, they took the ice out of the soda pops and challenged youngsters to make a pop moustache with their drink.
“If the staff doesn’t buy into it, it won’t work,” she said. “They have to believe you are doing it for the right reason.”
Johnson said the mission of the Grizzly Paw’s green team is to take a stand to reduce as much waste as possible through its business practice and community involvement. That also includes regular community cleanup events for staff, which have resulted in more than 45 kilograms of garbage picked up throughout town.
The campaign also began reaching out to others in the food and beverage industry to get them on board with the behaviour change.
So far, Johnson said, there have been great results and uptake. In Canmore, 13 businesses are on board to go single-use plastic straw free and in Banff another 13 have committed to the change.
That includes 11 restaurants or nightclubs owned and operated through the Banff Hospitality Collective. Katie Tuff with BHC said the idea of joining the Straws Suck campaign came from a staff member who also worked at the Grizzly Paw in Canmore.
Tuff said the idea fit well with the corporate values BHC has and the direction its employee driven Collective Community Commitment committee has undertaken over the past two years.
The committee has taken a three-pronged approach, she said, to contribute financially to community organizations, volunteer time in the community and practicing environmental sustainability.
“Straws Suck was our first push at that and we are coming up with a few more things to launch in 2018 that will be awesome,” Tuff said, adding the change involved giving each establishment the opportunity to decide how to create the change. “We didn’t want to be too restrictive to operations and go in and say ‘thou shalt not give out straws.’ We just wanted to diminish plastic and that was the goal.
“It is going really well and there is total buy in. I think people really appreciate the endeavour … We have been really inspired by the Grizzly Paw and their Green Team, they do such a great job.”