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The Final Straw: Boise Bars and Restaurants Replace Plastic Straws with Paper


At this point, it may be difficult to find an American citizen who hasn't heard of Trash Island, the nickname for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch between California and Hawaii. The pile, which sits at the center of what National Geographic calls the "Pacific trash vortex" and reportedly reached three times the size of France this March, is a massive calling card for the dangers of single-use plastics and their destructive impact on landfills and oceans worldwide. Though Boise is more than 400 miles from the nearest coastline, local restaurants and bars have been doing their parts to reduce waste by switching from plastic straws to paper straws on request, joining an international movement that seeks to cut down on single-use plastics one piece at a time.

One of the leaders of that movement is Jackie Nunez, founder of the Santa Cruz, California-based campaign The Last Plastic Straw. A trained kayak guide with an environmental activist bent, Nunez decided to dedicate herself full time to the reduction of single-use plastics following a kayaking trip she lead to the Glover's Reef Atoll World Heritage Site in Belize, where her group saw the pristine waterway become "a river of trash" following a storm.

"I started talking about plastic straws back in 2009, just bringing it up with my friends," Nunez said. "I volunteer with [Save Our Shores] beach cleanups and things like that, and I got to a point where I got very overwhelmed by the problem. ... The analogy I had was if there's a boat that was sinking, we kept bailing the boat with a teaspoon. We weren't plugging that hole, but I didn't know how to stop the flow."

Jackie Nunez, founder of The Last Plastic Straw, is shown here kayaking the Merced River in California.  - JACKIE NUNEZ
  • Jackie Nunez
  • Jackie Nunez, founder of The Last Plastic Straw, is shown here kayaking the Merced River in California.

Inspiration struck following her Belize trip. Back home in Santa Cruz, Nunez was sipping a drink at a beachside bar when she realized that the plastic straw she was using might soon become one of the many she'd kayaked past. That straw, she said, was her own personal "last plastic straw," and the spark of what would soon become a movement.

Nunez calls straws "the gateway issue" and "the poster child" for single-use plastic reduction. According to Eco-Cycle, a nonprofit recycling company, U.S. citizens use some 500 million straws every day—enough to fill 46,400 40-foot school buses each year. They're a staple in landfills because many are too thin and lightweight to make it through recycling machinery.

"The plastics problem, especially in the environment, has just increased exponentially," Nunez said. "And if you start looking into it you see the production rate of plastics is just skyrocketing, yet our reclamation rates are flatlining over the last 40, 50 years. We can't keep up with the rate we're producing these."

In 2010, Nunez started The Last Plastic Straw to raise awareness of the plastics problem, and how easy it is for an individual to make a difference by turning down plastic straws at bars and restaurants. For the retailers themselves, she referenced California's Water is Precious campaign, which mandates that water only be served on request for drought conservation, and advised that they only offer straws made from paper, bamboo, metal or some other non-plastic material on request. In 2011, she ramped up her presence on social media, but it wasn't until a 2015 video of a sea turtle having a plastic straw gruesomely extracted from its nose turned the world's collective stomachs that her campaign really took off. The video, filmed by Texas A&M marine biologist Christine Figgener, went viral, and now has almost 24 million views. Following that increase in public interest, Nunez joined up with the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a global alliance that shares her goals and provides her a larger platform.

"I work on this premise that nobody starts out to pollute the planet, they're just not aware," she said.

In Boise, the movement may have started with Ted Challenger, the owner of The Tailgate Taphouse, Dirty Little Roddy's, China Blue and Amsterdam Lounge. In a March 28 Facebook post, Challenger wrote that his bars would stop serving plastic straws, posting, "All my bars are going to be without plastic straws and stir sticks. We will offer paper straws on request."

Amy Lyons, sustainability director for the local environmentally-minded restaurant duo Bittercreek Alehouse and Red Feather Lounge, said Challenger inspired her to push owners Dave Krick and Jami Adams for a straw changeover at both restaurants. A past transition attempt before her hiring failed, but Lyons said the on-request model she implemented in April has allowed the restaurants to make the switch while keeping costs down. The eateries now order paper straws through Aardvark, but while they cost more than 10 times what the plastic ones did (half a cent versus more than 6 cents), the number requested is low.

"One of my largest jobs within the company is really trying to analyze our waste, what we're throwing away and how we can be better," said Lyons, "... So I started looking around at single-use plastic products and single-use paper products, just trying to see what had the biggest impact, which is how I found The Last [Plastic] Straw movement."

On April, Lyons made the local news when she asked Bittercreek and Red Feather staff to make a Boy Scouts-style pledge marking the conversion at a staff meeting; they recited a jokey oath while holding their hands aloft making the peace sign.

"We recorded this thing just to be cute and throw it up on Instagram, and then all of a sudden it had like 5,000 views in like two days, which was crazy because it legitimately was just supposed to be a funny, cute staff thing to get everybody in the know and engaged, but our guests just adored it," Lyons said.

Aardvark topped Lyon's list because its products are made in the U.S. from paper that's in compliance with the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. Plus, they can last up to an hour in an alcoholic beverage and three hours in a glass of water without breaking down.

"But while that's really cool, and in your drink it won't affect your experience, it actually only takes these paper straws 30 to 60 days to fully decompose in the landfill," Lyons said. She added that offering straws on request will also significantly lower their yearly order: before, the two restaurants purchased a total of 130,000 plastic jumbo straws and 90,000 plastic stir straws a year.

"And that's normal," Lyons said. "That's kind of the crazy thing. Those numbers sound massive, but that's actually normal practice for most restaurants."

Eureka!, another restaurant on Eighth Street, will make the same change in early June. According to Beverage Director Trevor Tyler, the Hawthorne, California-based company has been preparing for the switch for a while.

"It's actually something that I've been trying to initiate at Eureka! for the past year," said Tyler, who works out of the company's Los Angeles office. "We've slowly been testing it in certain markets for the past six months, and we've just seen so much great feedback and success ... Even though it's probably a small effect, every little thing helps."

Boise's restaurant wasn't a test market, but Tyler said the Eighth Street eatery will transition to paper next month. Because the chain is ordering straws for all 23 restaurants from Aardvark, it will score a price of 3.2 cents per straw (as opposed to .4 cents for plastic), making the change both environmentally savvy and relatively affordable.

Colin Hickman, the communications manager for the City of Boise Department of Public Works, said city officials are on board with restaurants ditching single-use plastics, and are looking into ways to make them more recyclable. These changes hinge on the city's recently implemented recycling initiative in partnership with Renewlogy, a Salt Lake City company that has agreed to turn Boise's plastics into biofuel.

"It's residential-only at this point, but [the city is] hopefully looking to expand the Hefty energy bag program to commercial in the long term," said Hickman. "And things like plastic straws are accepted in the energy bags ... We'll be sending out materials to all the commercial customers in the next few weeks about some of the recycling changes, but then also offering ourselves up as a resource. Within Public Works we have a few staff, one in particular, dedicated to commercial recycling."

Though these are big steps for a mid-sized city, on a national and global scale, Boise is still a bit behind the curve. In 2011, 9-year-old activist Milo Cress started a movement in Burlington, Vermont, called the Be Straw Free campaign, which went so far as to influence both the National Park Service, which has stopped using plastic straws at more than a dozen of its properties; and the National Restaurant Association, which now advocates the use of paper straws on request as a "best practice." Plus, The New York Times reported in March that entire cities—including Malibu, Davis and San Luis Obispo in California, Miami Beach and Fort Myers in Florida, and Seattle—have banned or restricted restaurant use of plastic straws. Abroad, a ban of all single-use plastics will go into effect in Taiwan by 2030, and Scotland will say goodbye to plastic straws by 2019. In the United Kingdom, the New York Post reports fast food giant McDonald's will start trial runs of paper straws in May. Still, thanks to local innovators, Boise is getting on the environmental track.

"I really think that in the next five to 10 years you're going to see plastic straws being less and less used, and hopefully obsolete in the next 10 years or so," said Tyler. "We're just doing our part."