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Paper or pasta: Plastic straw alternatives find receptive audience on US west coast

Tropical drinks with straws made of pasta are seen at Bob Morris's Paradise Cove Beach Cafe in Malibu, California, on July 24, 2018. (Mainichi)

MALIBU, California/SEATTLE, Washington -- Local governments and large companies alike along the west coast of the United States are cutting down on plastic waste and the environmental damage it causes, and the Mainichi Shimbun took a closer look at these efforts and public response.

Malibu, an upscale community hugging the Pacific Ocean about 50 kilometers west of central Los Angeles, is a magnet for beachgoers and surfers from across the country. In June this year, a Malibu municipal ordinance banning restaurants from distributing plastic utensils, including drinking straws, went into effect. Violators are liable for a fine between $100 and $500.

Bob Morris's Paradise Cove Beach Cafe sits on the beach, surrounded by sand festooned with white parasols. Tropical drinks served in pineapples or watermelons are a customer favorite, so straws are a must. The replacement, poking a hole in the top of the fruit, is a slender straw made of hard pasta. At each table, there is also a notice explaining the change, and declaring that the Paradise Cove Beach Cafe is doing its part to solve a serious global problem -- one straw at a time. Taking sips moistens the pasta straw and leaves one's fingers a little sticky, but there was no real problem downing the drink.

Cafe owner Bob Morris says the straws last for about four hours in-drink, an added that since they are made of flour and water, they are also environmentally friendly. He boasts that the establishment has yet to get a complaint from the cafe's 3,000 or so daily customers about the new straws.

Once such customer, 46-year-old therapist Julie Medeiros, said that she doesn't like drinking directly from a container because her lipstick comes off, but she supports eliminating plastic straws to help the environment. She notes that pasta is stronger than paper and that it's easy to drink from, calling it a good idea.

A Malibu frozen smoothie shop nearby has instead gone the paper route. Each wrapper states that the straw inside had been made entirely from recycled materials and is compostable. The thick smoothies are made from frozen fruits and vegetables and need a lot of suction to get up the straw, the end of which crumpled halfway through the drink. This happened to 46-year-old actress Patsy Palmer, but she says she can accept it because it's for the environment, even if it makes drinking a little hard.

A new Starbucks cold drink container with an opening in the lid, right, is seen next to an old-style container with a plastic straw, in Seattle, Washington, on Aug. 2, 2018. (Mainichi)

Her 7-year-old son Bertie Merkell asked if there were reusable metal straws he could use, and Patsy says that she doesn't like disposable things because they are bad for the sea. She added that the coastal community is concerned with ocean pollution, and Bertie studies environmental issues at school.

Further up the coast in the city of Seattle, Washington, a similar ordinance was introduced in July forbidding distribution of plastic straws to customers. That same month, coffee chain giant and hometown firm Starbucks Corp. announced that it would eliminate plastic straws from all its shops worldwide by 2020. The branches in Seattle were first, doing away with straws all together in favor of lid-top openings. While straws are more convenient for sipping and walking, there were no problems drinking an iced coffee through the new opening, about half the width of a thumb.

One Seattle restaurant catering to a mostly eat-in crowd says it only gives straws to customers who ask for them, which is less than half. Kathy Clifford, a 66-year-old tourist from the U.S. midwestern state of Indiana, explains that she doesn't drink with straws at home, so it doesn't bother her a bit.

The Sea Creatures seafood chain, with 14 establishments in the city, uses reusable metal straws in its restaurants and paper straws in its cafes. The difference between the paper and metal version could be compared to disposable softwood "waribashi" chopsticks often seen at Japanese restaurants and the washable ones people have at home.

A staff member at a Seattle, Washington, restaurant presents a drink with a metal straw, on Aug. 2, 2018. (Mainichi)

A major problem facing the anti-plastic straw movement is cost. Depending on the maker, a single plastic straw costs just 1 to 2 cents. Pasta or paper straws cost two to three times that much. However, Seattle restaurateur Jeremy Price, 38, notes, "Now we've got a bunch of options and ... been able to kind of shop around for the lowest price so it's actually over time for us gotten a little bit cheaper."

But why is the shift to get rid of plastic straws in particular so strong? According to environmental protection groups, there are some 500 million plastic straws used in the United States every day. However, too small to be recycled, they are virtually all tossed in the garbage, with many later being accidentally ingested by sea animals.

According to Sheila Morovati, a 40-year-old member of the environmental activist group that campaigned for the Malibu plastic utensil ban, she finds more than 10 straws washed up on the shore every time she visits the beach.

Anti-straw initiatives are "the tip of the iceberg against plastics and pollution," she said. Not including some people with disabilities who need them, "it's just an easy thing to take out of your life without really sacrificing too much."

(Japanese original by Hiromi Nagano, Los Angeles Bureau)

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