Photo courtesy of Steve Rice.
I was sitting in Berlin waiting for the other half of my meeting to show up and I ordered an iced tea. The server knew me by name and asked if I wanted a straw. A bit perplexed, admittedly, that he was asking rather than just providing, I said yes.
Returning with a straw, he politely and respectfully explained that Berlin—and by extension, Berlin’s sister business, Portfolio, both owned by Kerstin Kansteiner—will provide compostable straws upon request only because it’s better. For the ocean. For our streets. For our landfills. For our earth.
This moment really hit me. It was 1PM and I alone had already gone through three straws—one of which wasn’t even used on a water during breakfast. I quickly pulled out my phone and discovered I was very behind on a trend: banning straws because Americans go through 500 million a day. You read that right. 500 million straws are used to unnecessarily sip liquids and then disposed of on a daily basis in the US.
Long Beach has banned plastic bags at stores. We just banned syrofoam a little over a year ago. And yes, back in October, the City Council enforced restaurants to provide plastic utensils and straws by request only—but not outright getting rid of the nuisances.
In my brief little stint down the Google rabbit hole, I discovered that straws are fourth most popular collected item at beach cleanups (behind bottle caps, wrappers, and cigarette butts), according to The Ocean Conservancy.
So where oh where was Long Beach? And Los Angeles? And why was Kansteiner seemingly the business person taking a better earth into her own hands?
Kansteiner didn’t instantaneously arrive at this enlightened, albeit more expensive position. (Those compostable straws are, by no means, cheaper than good ol’ plastic.)
When screening the documentary Straws at the Art Theatre, she had an introduction by Steve Rice, a local musician who also cleans up the beach on a daily basis and, during these cleanups, would collect some 900 straws every day. During his intro, he brought in ten-thousand straws he has discovered on the shores of Long Beach alone—and the impact on Kansteiner was impressionable.
“I was caught off guard since I had never really thought about straws,” Kansteiner said. “Between the documentary itself and Steve bringing what he had collected, my mind was blown at how off-handedly we’re polluting the earth… I made all our businesses change to compostable straws and I am personally using reusable straws now.”
For Kansteiner, surely the uptick in cost for straws would be a grievance but in actuality, her businesses are now using less straws. With servers on board and comfortable dealing with customers who might be irked, it turns out that the cost has begun to balance out while her businesses help contribute in a small way.
She joins other joints like the Long Beach Creamery and Rasselbock, both in Bixby Knolls, that refuse to serve plastic straws.
Bans have not been unheard of on both sides of the discussion. On the private business side, chains like Britain’s massive pub chain Wetherspoon switched to compostable straws this year; Wetherspoon claims the move will prevent 70 million straws from entering landfills every year. On the municipal side, Seattle marks the biggest and latest city to outright ban plastic straws and utensils, a ban that was enacted the first of this year and supported by everyone from Mariner players to celebrities.
Even on the culinary side, Marcel Vigneron—the chef behind Wolf on Melrose—launched a “Straws Suck” campaign after being inspired by Straws like Kansteiner.
“It’s pretty forthright: you actually use straws to suck and they suck because they pollute the oceans,” Vigneron said. “We can fill up 127 school buses with the straws we use every single day in this country. It’s absurd.”
For Kansteiner and Vigneron, however, their personal choices to swear away with plastic sipping tools is one that needs to be met with a more aggressive approach from everyone in the city.
Et tu, City of Long Beach?
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