In the “summer of plastic straw bans,” North Carolina’s restaurant industry is feeling the heat.
“Drunk people, they are walking around without straws and they are confused,” Hibernian Assistant General Manager Susan Kemben said.
After a video of scientists pulling a bloody straw from a sea turtle’s nose went viral, plastic straws, once a ubiquitous staple, became deplorable outcasts. In North Carolina restaurants, retirement homes, schools, and even nightclubs, customers are going without plastic straws to save the sea turtles — whether they like it or not.
In Mozzarella Fellas, patrons sip out of stainless steel straws, if they make it that far. Many just stare at their glasses in a bewildered fog.
“It’s crazy. People are like, ‘What? I don’t get it — what do I do with it? What is it?’” owner Brian Ricciardi said. “They will stare inside them and be like, ‘Are these clean?’ It is no different from the fork you are using to eat or the glass that straw is sitting in.”
Irate customers have hunted Ricciardi down to vent about the straws, while others make off with them. But Ricciardi says he gets lots of positive feedback as well, especially as bigger chains have phased plastic straws out.
“But it meant a lot to me to do it, because I think we all know the facts surrounding how bad straws are,” Ricciardi said. “We need to start caring where we can, especially something as small as straws.”
Banishing plastic straws comes with its own set of challenges. Biodegradable replacements are not cheap, nor are they always perfect, according to Christophe Arnaud, director of dining services for Carol Woods Retirement Community, which uses compostable straws.
“The problem with a paper straw is that if you put it into a drink, you better drink fast,” Arnaud said.
At Sunny Point Café, using compostable straws meant occasionally decorating its flowerbeds with bits of straws, said Emma Harper, a friend of the house manager.
“If you throw away a compostable straw away in the trash, it will not compost in a landfill, and if you throw it in your compost bucket, it needs specific heat,” said Harper.
Tina Mackenzie, who owns the Outer Banks Brewing Station, is a firm believer in the movement. Her children drink out of metal straws, and her restaurant made national news for evicting the plastic offenders.
But as demand for biodegradable straws booms, restaurants are grappling with shortages. The day after Outer Banks Brewing Station made the news, they ran out of biodegradable straws.
“We were in a conundrum,” owner Tina Mackenzie said. “We couldn’t go back to plastic, so we got rid of straws all together … I was actually really happy it was a no-choice situation.”
The movement to ban plastic straws could make drinking harder for people with disabilities, who often can’t tilt their glass or who need the flexibility of a plastic straws, disability advocates say.
“For many people, straws aren’t a luxury. They are an integral part of how they consume food and drink,” Disability Rights N.C. Director of Public Policy Corye Dunn said.
The movement has also generated cynicism from the right, which dismisses it as “pure virtue signaling” and wonders just how many NC straws will end in a landfill, far from any sea life, said Roy Cordato, senior economist and resident scholar at the John Locke Foundation.
At the Hibernian, the customers who aren’t either happy or enraged are quietly mournful.
“I was disappointed. I wanted my straw,” Hibernian customer Ted Gautsch said. “But after seeing all these news reports that show pictures of beaches littered with plastic trash, it’s fine. I just miss them, that’s all. I get ‘distrawght’ over other things.”
Servers across the state say they are tired of getting lip or lower tips from de-strawed customers.
“They are surprised … like, ‘Oh, I guess there are no straws to be given. Oh no! You’re using plastic cups, isn’t that a waste of plastic?’” Hibernian server Tia Campbell said. “Well, no, because they are reusable.”
If nothing else, Kemben jokes, the movement will help America’s vanity.
“Pick it up and put it in your mouth. Besides, as you get older, you’ll appreciate not having to suck on a straw. Straws have the exact same effect on a woman’s mouth as smoking cigarettes,” Kemben said. “Save your lips, ladies, I’m 54.”