Bethany Clough

The plastic straw debate is raging. These Fresno restaurants want you to #stopsucking

The Revue goes compostable with its cups, lids and straws

The Revue owner Jeff Bennett talks about the importance of going compostable with cups, lids and straws, and the challenges facing the coffee shop in making the environmentally-friendly switch.
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The Revue owner Jeff Bennett talks about the importance of going compostable with cups, lids and straws, and the challenges facing the coffee shop in making the environmentally-friendly switch.

The new villain of the restaurant world: The plastic straw.

Seattle and San Francisco are banning single-use plastic straws in the name of the environment. Starbucks is ditching them, too. Some restaurants have stopped giving away straws unless diners ask for them. And a proposed bill in California would make it illegal for servers to give customers plastic straws unless they ask for them.

So what about Fresno?

There is no straw ban here, nor are any proposed bans in the works, according to the city.

But that doesn’t mean customers and business owners here aren’t thinking about ways to stop straws from ending up in our oceans and landfills.

Straws are difficult to recycle, even if they make it to a recycling facility, with mechanical sorters often losing them or diverting them to the wrong place.

Although there are other pollutants found in bigger quantities in our oceans and on our beaches – cigarette butts and plastic bags, for example – straws have become the internet controversy du jour.

Images of plastic floating in oceans are bouncing around the internet and a disturbing video of a bloody straw being pulled out of a sea turtle’s nose in 2015 has resurfaced.

There’s a full-on anti-straw #stopsucking movement online, with celebrities like football player Tom Brady encouraging people to ditch them in an Instagram video. (There’s a backlash to the movement too, with disability advocates saying some people need straws and one woman tweeting a picture of herself holding an AR-15 and a plastic straw, saying the government shouldn’t be allowed to take either.)

Still, some Fresno-area restaurants are making an effort to be more environmentally friendly. We’ve detailed what some of them are doing below, which ranges from not giving customers straws unless they request them to replacing foam cups and take-out containers with biodegradable or compostable ones.

But if it seems like a lot of restaurants aren’t doing much about the straw issue, you’re probably right. That’s because there are a lot of challenges to overcome when making the switch to environmentally friendly straws, cups and take-out containers.

There are alternatives to plastic straws out there: paper straws, bamboo straws, even straws made from long, hollow pasta. But they all seem to have their own downsides. (Many disintegrate after a while in liquid and a straw with wheat in it would be dangerous for people with celiac disease.)

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The Revue owner Jeff Bennett shows compostable cups that are used now in the coffee shop. The Revue has also switched to compostable lids and straws. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Making an eco-stand

The Revue coffee shop in the Tower District recently switched most of its disposable products to ones that are made from corn and can be composted.

“It was a passionate thing for all of us – the owner, staff and management staff there – because coffee shops are probably the biggest users of paper products,” said owner Jeff Bennett. “We want to make an eco-stand in whatever way we can.”

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A compostable straw tops a coffee drink at The Revue, a recent move toward being more eco-friendly. The coffee shop also has switched to compostable cups and lids. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

One of the biggest challenges? The straws.

He ordered them along with the cups and other compostable items, but the straws didn’t arrive until three months after his initial order.

Paper straws work well in thick drinks like milkshakes, but can break down in other drinks, Bennett said.

“When you drink it with an iced tea, about halfway though … you’re like, ‘Why do I have this piece of paper in my mouth?’”

Availability is a big issue, say several restaurateurs. Some restaurant suppliers don’t carry eco-friendly straws. Some alternatives to plastic straws are so popular that the companies making them can’t keep up with demand.

And then there’s the cost.

“Everything costs two, three times as much,” Bennett said.

Regular plastic straws cost $64 for a case of 6,000. That same case, including delivery, costs a lot more when buying compostable ones: “We’re paying $110 more for a case of straws,” Bennett said.

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Cups at The Revue indicate the switch to compostable. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Even the compostable system has its challenges. The coffee shop has to get customers used to throwing the cups in the green compost bin. It pays a separate fee for a waste company to pick up the compost. And the cups can only be composted in a specialized commercial system by a trash company. They won’t break down correctly in a backyard compost or even a landfill.

One alternative to plastic straws is to bring your own reusable straw. Stainless steel and glass straws are sold at local stores like 8th Notch Coffee and Gifts in downtown Fresno and at big retailers like Target. Some come with cleaning brushes and carrying cases designed to fit in purses.

Straw poll

But if you want to rely on restaurants taking the responsibility, here’s what local places are doing about plastic straws and other disposable waste.

Hi-Top Coffee in the Tower District has reusable stainless steel straws for iced drinks consumed on site. Its to-go products, like cups, lids and straws, are compostable.

The Fresno Chaffee Zoo hasn’t used plastic lids or straws for years. They can get stuck in animals’ throats or stomachs, cause cuts and require endoscopic procedures to remove them. The dishes and forks the zoo uses are compostable and will break down.

The zoo also uses seafood, such as its recent poke bowl special, recommended by Seafood Watch. The program by the Monterey Bay Aquarium recommends seafood that is caught or farmed in ways that minimize harm to habitats and other wildlife.

It also uses food from local sources whenever possible (including some of its salt, which is harvested sustainably from Big Sur) and is working with Fresno State to get more local sources.

Starbucks is pledging to get rid of plastic straws by 2020. Several local Starbucks have already started using recyclable strawless lids that have been compared to sippy cups for adults.

Lucy’s Lounge in the Tower District is not handing out straws unless customers ask for them and stopped using plastic cups.

Mama Mia Pizzeria next door is no longer using Styrofoam plates for pizza.

Red Robin restaurants in the area have stopped handing out straws with every drink. They only give them out when customers request straws.

L.T. Sue Co. Tea Room & Emporium in Hanford uses cutlery, soup bowls and lids that are biodegradable and made from corn. Its take-out containers are made from a noninvasive grass that is grown on marginalized land unsuitable for growing crops. The business also puts its used tea leaves and other food products into it compost.

Taste Kitchen, the restaurant at 6105 E. Kings Canyon Road, uses to-go boxes, napkins, plates and boats that are made from recycled products and are either biodegradable or compostable. Customers get a choice of using a straw or not, and the restaurant only adds straws to to-go orders when customers request them.

The restaurant formerly used utensils made from corn but is having difficulty finding them recently, said the owner.

The Annex Kitchen is the only restaurant in Fresno that’s certified green through the Green Restaurant Association. The restaurant earned the certification for a variety of factors, including its use of energy-efficient dishwashers, aerators on faucets, vegetarian dishes and using sustainable meat like Mary’s Free Range Chickens.

The restaurant doesn’t use Styrofoam; its take-out containers, menu paper, paper bags and towels are made from recycled material. The kitchen recycles and the restaurant has LED lighting.

The Annex Kitchen still uses plastic straws, but founder Jimmy Pardini said he wants to switch when a quality replacement is found.

Oriental Express, the restaurant at the Galleria at Civic Center Square in downtown Fresno, uses biodegradable cups, plates and to-go containers.

The Sno Cafe gourmet shaved ice truck in Fresno uses biodegradable and compostable dishes to hold its shaved ice.

Bethany Clough: 559-441-6431, @BethanyClough
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