09 Jul

So you want to know if your lonely protest will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Take heart – chances are, it will, writes Greg Ardé

You never know if yours will be the last straw: the movement is growing and every day, more eco-conscious consumers are demanding restaurants and takeaways to suck it up and stop offering single-use plastic straws.

The consequences of plastic straws on the ocean are ghastly. Most people have seen the Youtube video of the straw being pulled out of the turtle’s nose, and straws and other plastics are being consumed by sea life at a staggering rate, wiping out species and poisoning the food chain.

Durban based eco-warrior Chris Whyte, whose Use-It consultancy tries to find value in waste before it gets into the sea, says it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than marine life unless drastic action is taken.

It all starts with you. Don’t take a straw. Whyte says straws are a consumer proxy for a much wider issue relating to single-use plastics, and every time someone refuses a straw it sends a message up the corporate food chain that consumers demand their suppliers are green conscious and care about the environment.

Earlier this year when the restaurant chain Ocean Basket announced it had banned straws and plastic bags from its stores it put out a chilling infographic. It said every day Americans alone used 500 million straws – enough to fill 127 school buses – most of which ended up in the sea; and 18 000 plastic items were found in an average square kilometre of sea which killed one million seabirds a year and 100 000 marine mammals.

If you want to stop the slaughter then stop buying plastic earbuds, straws or once-off shopping bags.

The George, a popular establishment in uMhlanga stopped offering straws a few months ago when owner Peter Ely said he’d had enough. Since then he’s saved 1 000 straws a week. The paper straws cost him more than double, but he doesn’t care. It’s an education process.

Afro’s – the Durban born chicken shop – cut out straws in June last year, and has saved 5 000 straws a month. It introduced a biodegradable fork this year and has taken 35 000 plastic items out of the environment a month. Afro’s also refuses to sell water in plastic bottles, and is now only available in glass bottles, says the company’s Dee Gravett.

One of the first local hotels to get the ball rolling around straws was The Oyster Box through its “Last Straw” campaign. As a single straw takes 200 years to break down, GM Wayne Coetzer says the hotel – overlooking the magnificent Indian Ocean – had to do its part. They now provide paper straws, and a free cocktail or milkshake to every hotel resident who collects a bucket of beachfront rubbish.

Entrepreneur Robbie Blomfield who owns 12 Kauai franchises, says he now offers customers the choice to take a straw. In addition, all the cups, lids and straws are recyclable, and in April it started giving beverages away without lids, unless customers specifically ask for one.

Famous Brands, which has 482 restaurants across a range of brands – including Wimpy, Debonairs, Milky Lane, Lupa and Fishaways – is wrestling with the straw issue.

A marketing manager in the group said the company wanted to get rid of plastic straws, and at the moment they were looking at converting to paper straws and doing a trial run to see how they work.

Indeed, Health on Broadway started offering alternative straws months ago and they’ve been selling like hotcakes. Owner Bianca Harper said they had glass, stainless steel and Khanyiso reed straws which are grown sustainably in Mozambique. They sell for R5 and can be reused about 20 times.

“We sell hundreds a month. People are really trying to minimise their single-use of plastic and to be more environmentally conscious. Children are driving their parents to purchase and people who do beach clean-ups are exposed to the reality of the pollution.”

Consumer journalist Wendy Knowler says the plastic straw has become a symbol for plastic consciousness and is useful as a catalyst for a change in consumer attitudes and behaviour towards single-use plastics.

Once consumers make a stand on straws they are more likely to refuse other, bigger forms of plastic and to think about separating waste at home. She says consumers should consider refusing beverages in brown or green bottles because dark plastic fetches a lower price for waste pickers.

“One only has to visit Durban’s beaches after heavy rains to see the effects of our throw-away society.”

It is not only a pile of straws, Knowler says, it is mounds of plastic beverage bottles and the remnants of polystyrene takeaway containers, both of which are sought after by recycling plants.

“A study found that 94% of all beach litter in South Africa was plastic, of which 77% was packaging. Shunning plastic straws is a tiny part of the urgent need for all of us to re-look the manufacture, use and re-use of plastic.”

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