Perhaps it was the photos of sea turtles and waterfowl dying after ingesting plastics. Maybe pictures of the great Pacific garbage patch did it.
Locally, you only need venture down to the Susquehanna River to see plastic bottles bobbing in the water and plastic wrappers caught in clumps along the riverbank.
Whatever the motivation, over the past year, many people and organizations have decided to curb their use of single-use plastics, and that includes Harrisburg-area restaurants and businesses.
Earlier this year, Qui Qui Musarra announced that all three of her restaurants—Mangia Qui, Rubicon and Suba—had eliminated plastic straws. The restaurants now offer only paper straws by request. Each restaurant also offers recyclable beverage napkins, in addition to the eco-friendly takeout containers and bags that they have offered since opening.
Co-owner Staci Basore said that the drive towards plastic-free products came from reflection about the massive environmental problem we face with plastics consuming our landfills and oceans.
“People are spending more time eating out than eating in—often with food coming in plastic or throwaway containers,” she said. “Moreover, [a large majority] of all plastic ends up in landfills or the natural world. We have a plastic problem which produces obvious environmental and health impacts.”
Over at the Broad Street Market, Fudgeolutely has also rolled out paper straws, as well as recycled-paper, compostable cups printed with the catchy phrase: “May your cup runneth over with KARMA.” Owner Jessica Kost said that the decision to pull back from plastic use at her confectionary started with thoughts about her own plastic consumption.
“The more I read and learned about the dangers of plastic pollution, the more I felt pulled to take action against it,” she said. “This journey began with the purchase of a reusable, stainless-steel straw for personal use, so I can say, ‘No straw, please,’ when dining out. This prompted a lot of conversation on the topic and, ultimately, propelled me to take the next level of action with my business.”
Kost has also implemented glass-jar packaging for her newer treats, like toffee and nonpareils, and continues to hunt for plastic alternatives for her fudge packaging.
Fudgeolutely’s across-the-street neighbor, The Millworks, also has taken strides recently to ditch plastic. The inspiration for Chef Lance Smith came from loyal customers and staff, who provided him with feedback about the environmental ramifications of consuming single-use plastic.
“We then researched the subject and determined there is no reason we need to serve a straw with every single drink,” he said. “And, when requested, we would provide eco-friendly straws.”
Indeed, the spotlight has been on plastic straws this year. But will the movement make enough of a difference in the broader plastic consumption issue?
Basore believes it is a great first step.
“It may seem as though the quarter-of-an-inch diameter straw is the least of our worries, but the fight has got to start somewhere,” she said.
Perry Wheeler, global seafood communications and outreach manager at Greenpeace USA, agreed that the small act of cutting back plastic straw pollution will have a trickle-down effect.
“The hope is that these bans and actions on straws make people think more critically about all of the plastic in their lives,” he said. “It’s important that corporations don’t stop taking action after addressing plastic straws, because it’s not enough on its own. It’s our hope that this movement continues to gain momentum and secures significant victories on phasing out all types of throwaway plastics.”
But what about people who need to use plastic straws? Many with disabilities, especially with limited jaw control, depend on them to stay properly hydrated and nourished, and paper straws and biodegradable options tend to fall apart.
Wheeler said that, while the plastic-free movement effectively highlights how pointless single-use plastic straws can be, it overlooks a segment of the population for which they are necessary.
“Early straw bans ignored this and did not bring all impacted communities to the table to think through solutions to the issue and what sort of viable alternatives currently exist or not,” he said. “That is really critical for bans on single-use plastics moving forward. We feel strongly that the corporations that churn out single-use plastics that pollute our environment for lifetimes or more should be at the forefront of investing in potential alternatives to single-use plastics.”
A realistic approach could bridge the gap between where we are now and where we want to be environmentally. Businesses may want to consider stocking a small number of plastic straws for those with specific needs, until more eco-friendly options are available. But, the major point here is addressing excessive and unnecessary plastic use.
“Overall, companies realize that they can’t just maintain the status quo with single-use plastics and remain viable,” Wheeler said. “Consumers are applying pressure like never before, and corporations are forced to respond.”
Smith said that limiting single-use plastic turned out to be a pretty easy decision for The Millworks, as sustainability is a core value that the farm-to-table restaurant was founded on.
“It makes sense for us do our part in any way we can,” he said. “Almost all of our to-go food packaging is biodegradable or eco-friendly, and we are working to have all of these materials eco-friendly within the next couple of months.”