2018-07-19 / Front Page

Deli swaps plastic straws for paper


Jeff Titus, from left, Kailey Titus and Evan Titus stay cool by sipping beverages through paper straws Tuesday afternoon at East Ferry Deli. The Tituses are from Connecticut. PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN Jeff Titus, from left, Kailey Titus and Evan Titus stay cool by sipping beverages through paper straws Tuesday afternoon at East Ferry Deli. The Tituses are from Connecticut. PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN When Starbucks revealed earlier this month it would phase out plastic straws by 2020, the announcement made international news.

A local restaurant, however, already had beaten the global coffee company to the punch.

East Ferry Deli began offering paper straws in lieu of plastic ones this summer. Co-owner Alyson Johnson said the switch was made for environmental reasons.

“We’re looking at different options for iced coffee cups, too,” she said. “Slowly but surely, we’ll be environmentally friendly.”

The Conanicus Avenue deli has joined a growing list of Rhode Island restaurants that have banned plastic straws, or reduced their usage, in this past year. The trend has been influenced by a grassroots movement through a contingency of environmental groups, including the Plastic Pollution Coalition based in California.

Each straw, these organizations say, takes 200 years to decompose — and an estimated 500 million are used daily by Americans.

Paper straws began making their way into tea and coffee cups at East Ferry Deli in June. While the overall response from customers has been positive, Johnson has heard some complaints.

“Some people just don’t like the texture of the straws,” she said. “But for the most part, people love them. They appreciate it.”

The switch in straws is consistent with the deli’s strategy to reduce its reliance on plastic since Johnson and Julie Fauxbel bought the restaurant in June 2017. They also are phasing out Styrofoam cups. Although extruded polystyrene foam is still offered, the deli is working through its final bulk order. They will not be replaced when the supply is exhausted, Johnson said.

Anne Kuhn-Hines, chairwoman of the local conservation commission, applauded the deli’s reduction of these non-recyclable products. Plastic straws and Styrofoam cups are usual suspects during the commission’s annual cleanups.

“You see the plastics broken up on the roads and after storms,” she said. “They get washed into the bay and you see them on the beaches. The plastics can then become micro-plastics. They break down, they get into the food for the fish and then we end up eating them, too.”

One of the advantages of switching from plastic to paper, according to Kuhn-Hines, is because the latter material is biodegradable. That means paper breaks down organically, as opposed to spending decades in a landfill like plastic.

According to Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Clean Ocean Access, volunteers have found more than 2,000 straws along the coastline of Aquidneck and Conanicut islands since they began collecting data in 2013. Clean Ocean Access is a Middletown organization that spearheaded the plastic bag ban in September.

“Whether you swim in the waters, walk the shoreline or sail around the world, you hear more and more first-hand experience of people witnessing the amount of plastic that’s in the water,” he said. “Now, we’re hearing about the albatrosses in the south Pacific, or seabirds in the local area, or whales or dolphins or turtles. They’re dying because they’re ingesting plastic.”

Although paper straws were prevalent in the middle of the 20th century, plastic became the dominant material for drinking utensils. Johnson, who started working at the deli in the 1990s, remembers using plastic during her entire career at East Ferry.

According to Kuhn-Hines, the nationwide trend of switching from plastic to paper can be traced to coastal communities. In Rhode Island, the municipalities that have banned plastic bags are along Narragansett Bay, including Barrington, Middletown, Newport, New Shoreham, Portsmouth and Jamestown.

“They recognize that things end up in the water inadvertently,” she said.

Several cities even have banned plastic straws, including Seattle, whose law went into effect in July. There has not been a similar movement to legislate their use in Rhode Island, however.

McLaughlin said his organization has no plans to promote a ban on plastic straws like it did for plastic bags.

“We certainly are happy to see the community activism about getting rid of plastic straws,” he said. “I’d love to see this go forward in which both individuals and industries worked together to eradicate plastic straws from our daily lives without the need of a law.”

McLaughlin said the decision by East Ferry Deli is a step in the right direction.

“It’s fantastic,” he said. “Using fossil fuels to make an item such as a plastic straw, that’s meant to last for a few minutes but the material is designed to last for thousands of years, is not the best use of plastic. If people need a straw, I think a paper straw is a very good alternative.”

Although the movement to ban plastic straws has gained nationwide support from environmentalists, there has been criticism from disability rights groups on the matter. People with motor impairments, autism or cerebral palsy, for example, may have difficulty using paper straws, they said.

As a result, Seattle and other cities with bans typically have included a waiver in their laws that allows restaurants to offer plastic straws to disabled individuals for medical reasons. This is one reason for McLaughlin’s trepidation on prohibition.

“The last thing we want to do is turn back the clock on improvements in the quality of life,” he said. “That goes for everyone.”

At the East Ferry Deli, Johnson plans to offer reusable metal straws as an alternative to the paper products. She also will keep a supply of plastic straws for customers who request them.

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