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Photo: Jean Schindler

Stop Sucking: DC Says “No” to Single-Use Plastic Straws

When I arrived at college, the hot rumor was that drinking alcohol through a straw was the fast-track to getting trashed. My crew worked through boxes of straws to learn firsthand it was just an urban myth.

College drinking memories hit me recently when the District announced it would be the second major U.S. city to ban straws, effective January 2019. Establishments caught handing out contraband will get warnings until this summer, when fines come into effect.

Even though I almost never use straws anymore, I was weirdly indignant: the nanny state is telling us how to consume our beverages! But headlines were misleading. DC can use all the straws it wants – just as long as they’re not single-use plastic straws. And as it turns out, the shift to sustainable materials was already well underway.

“We try to be environmentally conscious in everything we do at Tiki TNT,” says Todd Thrasher, owner of the popular new rum bar at The Wharf. “I never even considered supplying plastic straws, ban or no ban. We already have a variety of alternative straw options from plant-based to paper.”

And in his expert opinion as a master of slow-drinking tiki cocktails: “I don’t find that the straw compromises the flavor profile of the drink.”

DC spots have been actively “greening” their bar programs for years, and plastic straws have been an easy target. Hank’s Cocktail Bar stopped providing them – unless specifically requested – years ago.  Shaw’s hip, subterranean cocktail bar 600t features reusable metal straws. Founding Farmers, which prides itself on being aggressively eco-friendly, long used compostable straws before switching to paper in 2017.

Buffalo & Bergen, the popular cocktail counter and soda fountain in Union Market, favors corn-based straws – though “many of our cocktails are designed to be served without a straw,” says owner and mixologist Gina Chersevani. “We make a dedicated effort to reduce and reuse.”

So it comes as no surprise that when Founding Farmers co-owner Dan Simons launched a campaign in early 2018 to formally do away with single-use plastic straws in DC’s hospitality industry, he found a groundswell of support. The Our Last Straw coalition incorporated as a nonprofit organization and rapidly picked up over 200 partners in bars, restaurants, hotels and nonprofits across the greater DC area.

The campaign picked up even more momentum last April when the Alice Ferguson Foundation snagged nearly 10,000 plastic straws during cleanup events along the Potomac River Watershed. Mayor Bowser’s office officially announced its support that same month, and in October, the city updated existing food service regulations to ban plastic straws (single-use foam products were banned in 2016). Maybe, some suggest, it’s time to start banning all single-use plastics.

Every year, nearly nine tons of plastic pollution float into the oceans, and experts estimate that by 2050, plastic trash will outweigh fish. This is bad news not just for fish, but also for humans: these plastics break into ever-smaller pieces until they slide into the food chain. Microplastics have been found in fish flesh, sea salt and even beer – and now in your stomach.

Though the world’s few million plastic straws are a minuscule part of the billions of plastics floating in the world’s oceans, some see the ban as another small step in a process of gradual change. Simons has suggested that a Last Plastic Fork initiative could be a reality in the near future. But he also notes that solutions to plastic pollution take time and cannot be only the product of top-down government action.

One enforcement question facing the District revolves around bubble tea, which requires sturdy, oversized straws. There are no environmentally friendly disposable alternatives available at present, and aggressive enforcement will harm at least a dozen small, often minority-owned businesses in the District.

“The challenge in finding a truly enviro-friendly straw that works for boba [bubble] tea is a perfect example of why I was inspired to start Our Last Straw,” Simons says. “We will eliminate all single-use plastic straws, and we can do it without any downside.”

Another exception is for people with disabilities who require plastic straws to drink or eat. Paper straws have limited usage time before they break apart and pose a choking hazard, while metal or glass straws can cause severe injury if someone bites down hard (as can happen during, for example, a seizure). Restaurants and bars in the District are still required to keep some plastic straws on hand for customers who require them.

“We need to work collaboratively with the supply chain, the regulators and the operators to find solutions,” Simons emphasizes. “If that means delaying or phasing in enforcement while the supply chain works to provide a true solution, so be it. We can’t pretend ideology is a substitute for reality.”

Learn more about Our Last Straw at www.ourlaststraw.org, including a list of local restaurant groups and other spots participating in the eco-friendly initiative.

600t: 600 T St. NW, DC
Buffalo & Bergen: 1309 5th St. NE, DC; www.buffalobergendc.com
Founding Farmers: Various locations in the DC area; www.wearefoundingfarmers.com
Hank’s Cocktail Bar: 1624 Q St. NW, DC; www.hankscocktailbar.com
Tiki TNT: 1130 Maine Ave. SW, DC; www.tikitnt.com

Illustration: Nick Caracciolo

Devoured Offers Sustainable Alternative For DC Waste

Americans excel at wasting food. According to an article on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s website, the country disposed of 37.6 million tons of food waste – with nearly 94 percent of it going to landfills or combustion facilities – in 2015. Essentially, it was rendered uneaten and utterly useless.

The simplest way to reduce these numbers is to cut back, but for most, reducing waste is not that simple. Another alternative is being realized in the District by local company Devoured, which strives to help businesses in the city be more responsible by turning what could be trash into compost.

Founder Walker Lunn set out to help the World Bank Group cut down on their waste in 2006. As a student studying hospitality management, he began piecing together a program that would help redirect food products thrown away to compost facilities rather than landfills or incineration facilities.

Lunn says, “Once we started working with [the World Bank], it became a question of, ‘How do we stop this problem?’” When food waste goes to a landfill, it ends up rotting in an anaerobic environment and produces methane. It causes global warming and takes what could be a valuable resource and loses it forever. What we do is take it to a compost facility where the waste is mixed with sticks, leaves and grass, and it’s decomposed.”

According to the EPA, compost is organic material that helps plants grow. Made up largely of food scraps and yard waste, at least 30 percent of what we throw into a trashcan could instead be used as compost. The soil supplement is sold at retail locations such as Home Depot and other gardening outlets.

“Everyone we spoke with – restaurants and hotels – were like, ‘This is cool [and] we want to do it, but we’re concerned about cost,’” Lunn says. “Cost, space, odor and training were really the things that came up at first.”

Lunn and his team began working on a model that would enable Devoured to pick up the heaviest, wettest, most challenging parts of waste to transport to compost facilities, which are generally farther than landfills or transfer stations. In order to reduce odors, the company makes frequent pickups for their client base, which is largely made up of office buildings and hotels throughout the week.

“When we started, we couldn’t get another company to haul it,” Lunn says, laughing. “I wanted to hire a contractor, but I couldn’t get anyone to do it. The only compost company was in Cambridge, Maryland, so it was really tough. So much has changed.”

One of these changes is the frequent use of biodegradable, compostable products such as cups, plates and bowls.

“It’s transformed what we transport because it used to be mostly food,” he says. “Now a huge part of what we collect is packaging. I don’t think there’s any point of buying a compostable product unless you send it to a compost facility. Like any business, we have a sales process, and our business is mission-driven.”

With the increase of waste and global warming awareness, there’s no question the business has grown. And while some companies reach out to Devoured specifically because of their own green initiatives, there are others who are still looking to minimize their hefty trash bills.

“It’s case by case,” Lunn says. “[For] some of our clients, it’s part of their mission. For professionally managed business, the interest and willingness to do it comes from the benefits it provides, but the justification is typically driven by savings – or at the very least, breaking even.”

Another change in the past decade has been the competition. With a heightened awareness of food waste and the damages it can cause to the environment, Lunn is no longer the only game in town. Despite this, he maintains that his clients are ones that other businesses envy; looking ahead, he’s largely hopeful for what’s in store for Devour.

“Scaling up is part of [growth].”

To learn more about Devoured, visit www.devoured.co. Contact Lunn and his team at [email protected] or 202-810-9751.