One of this year’s biggest drink trends isn’t a cocktail, or even an ingredient—it’s the controversial paper straw.
The national push to eliminate plastic in drinks seemed to have started with the resurfacing of a viral 2015 video, depicting a sea turtle with a straw wedged painfully in its nose. This summer, Seattle became the first city to ban single-use straws and utensils altogether; in September, California became the first state to pass a similar measure, preventing businesses from serving straws in any drink unless requested. And big companies are signing onthis link opens in a new tab: American Airlines, Goldman Sachs, and even Starbucks and McDonald’sthis link opens in a new tab have set dates to switch to paper straws.
Naysayer types have been quick to point out that eliminating straws doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the plastic issue—after all, in 2015, global plastic consumption totaled over 300 million metric tonsthis link opens in a new tab. But proponents assert that shining a light on a ubiquitous, day-to-day item like the straw is one step towards a larger conversation.
In the niche cocktail world, notable industry entities, including Tales of the Cocktailthis link opens in a new tab, various chapters of the United States Bartenders Guildthis link opens in a new tab, and the Scotch Whiskey Associationthis link opens in a new tab have pledged to move away from plastic straws and stirrers. Thus far, the most widely-used alternative among bartenders has been paper straws.
“We need to start making changes and being aware of what we waste in the industry,” says Andrew Grenz, beverage manager at the Fairmont Austin hotelthis link opens in a new tab, which has switched over entirely to paper straws in all of its drinks. “Guests notice as well, especially in Austin. There was a moment we ran out of paper straws and only had plastic, and people were pointing it out and asking us why we didn’t have paper straws. I think it’ll become the new norm.”
But many bartenders, including Grenz, acknowledge several drawbacks to paper straws, including quick disintegration and the addition of unwanted flavors to the drink. Renowned Washington D.C. bartender Trevor Frye says he’d forgo a straw altogether before using a paper straw. “Paper straws are terrible,” Frye says. “They impart flavor changes on your drink when they break off or are used with crushed ice.”
Inaka Ho of Cocktail Cothis link opens in a new tab in Sydney voices concern for a different reason, pointing out that paper straws require guests to chug their drink before the straw starts soaking up too much liquid and becoming soft. “From a consumer standpoint, paper straws just encourage me to drink faster, like I’m in a race to finish the cocktail before the straw gets all limp and mushy,” she says. “It might just encourage more waste anyways if I end up replacing the straw with another while I sip slowly.”
Still, for sustainability-minded bartenders, a paper alternative is still very preferable to plastic. And with customizable prints, they do offer a fun option for special parties and events.
“I think any straws that are reusable or more sustainable have a place at the table,” says Lauren Klemm of New York’s Macethis link opens in a new tab and Boilermakerthis link opens in a new tab. “If a friend or bar I’m patronizing chooses paper over plastic, I am okay with it.” She adds, “I love how cute they are—you can get them personalized and they come in prints.”
Klemm and other paper-straw advocates point to Aardvarkthis link opens in a new tab, whose paper drinking straws are notably sturdier and longer-lasting than those of competitors. Notable as the only American company making paper straws—another plus for US bartenders—Aardvark is the gold standard for paper straws as far as most bartenders are concerned.
Last year, bartender Megan Deschaine of The Macintoshthis link opens in a new tab in Charleston, South Carolina helped coordinate Charleston’s Strawless Summer, a campaign launched nationally through the nonprofit Surfrider Foundationthis link opens in a new tab. When Strawless Summer returned this year, roughly 1000 bars and restaurants all along the South Carolina coast signed on to participate. While Deschaine also prefers Aardvark out of the paper straw options, she says she’s continually refining her knowledge of the issue, suggesting metal may be the best way forward.
“Compostable straws and paper straws are far less impactful environmentally, but they’re still a form of waste,” explains Deschaine. “I think the best alternative to no straw would be a reusable metal straw.”
So why not do away with straws behind the bar altogether and make it the responsibility of guests to bring their own straws? Nearly all of the bartenders we spoke to agreed that having single-use straws is necessary for elderly folks and any guests with disabilities who might require a straw. And of course, there are crushed-iced cocktails that cannot be consumed without one.
“For any drink on crushed ice, you must have a straw, otherwise you just wind up with a nose-full of ice and barely any cocktail where it should be—in your mouth,” says Kelsey Ramage, co-founder of the bar industry’s food-waste advocacy platform Trash Collectivethis link opens in a new tab. “Crushed ice drinks are not only intrinsically linked to tiki cocktails, but the machines that produce crushed ice use thirty percent less energy than the square-cubed—we love that! So there is an actual explanation of why straws are necessary, and it has nothing to do with keeping your lipstick on.”
Ramage and her partner, Iain Griffiths, are not huge fans of paper straws. They instead point to newer options on the market including hay straws and bamboo straws, both of which hold up better than their paper counterparts when sitting in a drink for a few minutes. Their favorite is the bamboo straw, which is all-natural and multi-use.
“There are new hay straws on the market that hold up much better than the first ones we tried. They look great in drinks, and although you need to use two, they kind of have the old-swizzle stick kind of nostalgia to them as well,” says Ramage. “But we still prefer re-usable bamboo straws as if you’re able to have something that can be used more than a few times will always take first pick over a single-use straw any day.”
Regardless of what straw you use, eliminating plastic is only the first step towards making your bar truly sustainable. And it only works if you apply the same thinking to the rest of your bar and lead your team by example—consider making straws request-only or selling metal straws, which are a guest favorite. Rather than letting it detract from the guest experience, the straw could become an added do-good, feel-good point of service.