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In 2015, a disturbing video of an olive ridley sea turtle suffering from a plastic straw stuck in its nose went viral, changing many viewers’ attitudes toward the plastic tool that is largely a convenience for most people.
But how can the plastic straw—a diminutive item used briefly before being thrown away—cause so much damage? For starters, it easily finds its way into oceans due to its lightweight nature. Once there, it does not biodegrade. Instead, it slowly fragments into smaller and smaller pieces known as microplastics, which are frequently mistaken for food by marine animals.
Secondly, it can’t be recycled. “Unfortunately, most plastic straws are too lightweight to make it through mechanical recycling sorters, so they end up in landfills and waterways and, eventually, our oceans,” explains Dune Ives, executive director of Lonely Whale. The nonprofit facilitated the successful Strawless in Seattle marketing campaign supporting the Strawless Ocean initiative.
In the United States, we dispose of millions of plastic straws each day. In the U.K., at least 4.4 billion straws are estimated to be thrown away annually. Hotels are some of the worst offenders: Hilton Waikoloa Village, which became the first resort on the island of Hawaii to eliminate plastic straws earlier this year, used more than 800,000 straws in 2017.
Of course, straws are just part of the monumental waste that goes into our oceans. “Over the last 10 years, we have produced more plastic than in the whole of the last century, and 50 percent of the plastic we use is single-use and is immediately thrown away,” says Tessa Hempson, operations manager for Oceans Without Borders, a newly launched foundation from luxury safari company &Beyond. “One million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed annually from plastic in our oceans. Forty-four percent of all seabird species, 22 percent of whales and dolphins, all sea turtle species, and a growing list of fish species have been documented with plastic in or around their bodies.”
But now, the plastic straw has finally started to become an endangered species itself, with some cities in the United States (Seattle, Washington; Miami Beach and Fort Myers Beach, Florida; and Malibu, Davis, and San Luis Obispo, California) banning them, and some countries limiting single-use plastic items, which include straws. Belize, Taiwan, and England are among the latest countries to propose bans.
Still, a company doesn’t have to wait for the government to institute a ban before implementing one on its own. Soneva banned straws in 2008, and Cayuga has been using bamboo straws since 2010. Hotels like these have paved the way for a movement and the travel and hospitality industries are finally starting to catch on.
Hotel brands initiating plastic straw bans include Four Seasons, AccorHotels North and Central America, Marriott International in the U.K., EDITION hotels, the Doyle Collection, Six Senses, Taj Hotels Palaces Resorts Safaris, Experimental Group, and Anantara. Cruise lines and tour companies including Carnival, Hurtigruten, Peregrine Adventures, and Coral Expeditions have reduced or eliminated their use of plastic straws on their ships. And luxury safari companies like &Beyondand Wilderness Safaris are both working toward removing plastic straws from their lodges.
While individual actions can have a significant impact on the enviornment and influence in the industry, a ban from a single hotel chain can remove millions of straws in a single year. Ananatra and AVANI estimate their hotels across Asia used 2.49 million straws in 2017 and AccorHotels estimates using 4.2 million straws in the U.S. and Canada last year as well.
“Plastic straws are one of the worst offenders in terms of plastic pollution. By putting in alternatives and eliminating their use across &Beyond’s lodges, we are doing our part to keep plastic out of the oceans,” says Hempson.
While not using a straw is best, some people prefer them or need them, like those with disabilities or sensitive teeth or gums. If you want to use a straw, reusable metal or glass straws are ideal. Final Straw, which claims to be the first collapsible reusable straw, is currently raising funds through Kickstarter.
Hospitality brands eliminating plastic straws have looked to various disposable alternatives. Paper is popular, with many U.S. establishments using Aardvark to supply American-made, FDA-approved straws that take 30 to 60 days to decompose. Another choice is compostable straws made from PLA (polylactic acid), a plant-based bioplastic made from materials like cornstarch instead of petroleum. These straws are compostable under the proper conditions but do not break down in water.
A more creative option is uncooked pasta, which is currently being used at Paradise Cove Beach Café in Malibu and tested by Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. At the Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, Andamans, bamboo straws and stirrers are used.
And some establishments are using actual straw as straws, just like when straws first came into use. The Mandrake Hotel in London offers straws made from rye stems, which they get from German company Bio-Strohhalme.
“Most people just don’t think about the effects the simple act of reaching [for] or accepting a plastic straw has on their lives and the lives of generations to come,” says David Laris, chief creative officer and chef at Cachet Hospitality Group, which does not use plastic straws. “The hospitality industry has an obligation to begin reducing the amount of plastic waste it generates.”
Devorah Lev-Tov is a food and travel writer based in Brooklyn; find her on Instagram @devoltv.