The last straw: Local food market joins movement to ban plastic straws

WASHINGTON — A small grocery store in Rockville, Maryland, is hoping to make a big impact with its recent ban on plastic straws.

Dawson’s Market, a community-focused natural foods store, made the move last month, joining a growing number of restaurants, companies and cities in an effort to reduce plastic pollution.

“There are so many straws everywhere and everybody has straws and they end up in the oceans, so there needs to be a way to get rid of them,” said Bart Yablonsky, director of operations for Dawson’s Market.

“A straw, it’s a small piece, but it does have a huge impact.”

Environmental advocates say, frankly, plastic straws suck when it comes to keeping oceans clean. A 2014 study published by the Public Library of Science estimates there’s more than 250,000 tons of plastic in the world’s oceans, and straws are part of that.

The lightweight and buoyant tubes commonly collect in the sand (which is why beaches throughout the U.S., including Ocean City, Maryland, have launched campaigns to curb their use), and a viral video showing a sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nose points to deeper damage.

The number of straws Americans go through each day is up for debate. Eco Cycle, which leads the Be Straw Free campaign, reports 500 million straws are used every day in the U.S.; however, critics question the source of this statistic.

But one thing is for sure: Single-use straws are ubiquitous. They line lattes, top teas and sit in sodas. Straws are stocked in movie theaters, are handed out at restaurants, and are included in almost every fast-food order — only to be discarded minutes later.

Catherine Plume, the conservation chair of the D.C. Chapter of the Sierra Club, said in most restaurants, placing a straw on the table is something that’s automatic for waitstaff. Her group, which lobbies local restaurants and the city council to get rid of single-use straws, encourages consumers to speak up and order beverages without them.

“There’s a lot that every individual can do. We all make a difference,” Plume said.

On July 2, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban single-use plastic straws and utensils. According to The Associated Press, the city’s 5,000 restaurants must use compostable or reusable alternatives. And that is exactly what Dawson’s Market is doing.

Yablonsky, who estimates the store’s cafe goes through 1,000-plus straws each week, said the independent grocery store did a lot of research and tested a number of options. The product it ended up choosing is a compostable straw, made from corn.

“It will break down, but it won’t break down in the course of an hour or so while you’re drinking your soda,” Yablonsky said.

So far, he said the feedback from customers has been nothing but positive, both at Dawson’s Market and its sister store, Ellwood Thompson’s in Richmond, Virginia. Yablonsky said he hopes the market’s new policy will inspire others in the area to follow suit.

“We’re a small, independent store and we wanted to kind of be the driving force in Rockville … So hopefully a small store like us can do this and encourage some of the other larger retailers and people, even within Rockville Town Square, that might want to adopt this,” he said.

Larger companies are considering similar policies. McDonald’s is phasing out plastic straws in the U.K., where it reportedly uses 1.8 million straws a day, and petitions calling on Starbucks to do the same have garnered thousands of signatures. Bans are also being considered in New York and San Francisco.

A spokesperson from D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment, which has a goal of 80 percent waste diversion by 2032, said in a statement that the city is “actively working with businesses, NGOs and concerned citizens to address the issue of plastic straws.”

“We are working with the Our Last Straw coalition, which is a business-led campaign asking the local food industry to pledge to reduce straw use and to transition to environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic, such as paper. Many businesses in the District have already moved away from plastic straws, and we as an agency are happy to support their initiative,” the statement read.

Yablonsky said, “Hopefully the word will get out about it and people will start to request it or demand it.”

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