This summer, Starbucks made a buzz (ha, coffee jokes) following its announcement to phase out plastic straws by 2020, citing their negative environmental impact. A seemingly small gesture ballooned into a global debate on the necessity of straws, corporate PR stunt culture, and accessibility to customers with disabilities. Many argued that straws played a relatively small role in corporate environmental damage, and that Starbucks could have done more. Another debate sprung up regarding the importance of straws to people with disabilities, who otherwise could not consume their drinks.
“Strawgate” could perhaps serve as an example to how often we take insignificant facts of life for granted. This year, quietly, Red & Black Cafe introduced compostable straws for their smoothies and coffee drinks. The decision did not come lightly, as Red & Black’s owner Ed Thorndike ’89 (also known as “the WesWings guy”) pointed out.
“We haven’t 100 percent switched to compost straws,” Thorndike said. “We’re trying to figure out the best way through the issue. A lot of places we saw quickly abandoned them, saying we have to switch to compost or paper straws, but during the summer we’ve looked at mostly a lot of alums that we happen to keep in touch with or follow through social media who are trying to weigh the issue of folks with disabilities and how that affects them…. We realized it is not a simple solution just to simply just abandon them.”
David M. Perry ’95, a columnist for the Pacific Standard, recently weighed in on the straw debate. For Perry and his son with disabilities, straws are an essential resource for daily life. Perry writes in his piece defending straws that the ban feels groundless and relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of environmental damage.
“For my son, as with many others, plastic straws offer a remarkable combination of affordability, tensile strength, and flexibility,” Perry writes. “While some disabled people can use or even prefer harder reusable straws, metal, wood, or glass straws can be dangerous, uncomfortable, or ineffective for others. Compostable straws made of vegetable matter have a similar feel as standard plastic straws (and my son likes them), but they are vastly more expensive than plastic straws and raise concerns about food allergies.”
Thorndike took Perry’s article into special consideration when choosing a mode of action. Although Red & Black still offers its original plastic straws (as they were still in stock), they are experimenting with rigid, plastic-like compostable straws so customers may opt to use whatever they prefer. The new straws are slightly more expensive, but still relatively cheap for Red & Black’s operations.
“If you want to have a compostable straw, that’s fine,” Thorndike said. “If you want to skip the straw, we encourage you to do that too. The easiest way is to just not—if you’re someone who doesn’t want to take a bag or straw or to-go container, to me that’s always the best solution. But at the same time we still want to offer them for people who may need them. That goes even for some of our bags; we have people with disabilities who use that bag to carry their food. For some people it’s not an issue, and for them I say great. Skip it. But we want to be mindful of people who need them who rely on them more than other people.”
One of the barriers Red & Black has run into with sustainability in the past is drawing a line between institutional change and personal responsibility. Many of the cafe’s to-go and disposable containers are either recyclable or compostable, but not everyone thinks to dispose of them properly. Students may not have access to commercial compost facilities that ensure proper degradability, and Connecticut’s waste services send trash to an incinerator before most products would have a chance to break down. Straws can create a similar problem—just because compostable straws are available, doesn’t mean students have to take them.
“Eventually, we’ll get to putting up signage to let people know,” Thorndike said. “We have the straws, and we’re doing it to recognize that we have it, but we’re not sure. If they seem to satisfy the disabled community as well as the environmental community and they work for us, then eventually we won’t get the other ones as well, and those will be our regular straws.”
Perry mentions in the same article that several conversations about straws have taken a hostile or condescending turn, with individuals assuming Perry is misinformed, or just hasn’t done research on the many types of straw alternatives. He points out the importance of placing responsibility on large-scale causes instead of blaming individuals.
“Our industrial systems continue to flood waste facilities with plastics, big and small,” Perry writes. “From there, plastics flow into rivers and streams and are carried into the sea. We need to look at the systems that generate these plastics, and hold producers financially responsible for safe disposal. Let’s put our efforts where the money is, rather than shaming disabled consumers who just want an accessible drink of water.”
Red & Black just put the power to choose our straws into our own hands. Let’s see how much we suck at it.
Brooke Kushwaha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @brookekushwaha.