The Last Straw

Restaurants fight plastic pollution by reducing or eliminating straws from their establishments 

Photography by Jordan Ashwood 

Plastic waste has become a huge threat to our ecosystem, piling up both in landfills and oceans. According to Plastic Pollution Coalition, over 30 million tons of plastic is discarded every year in the United States, but only eight percent is recycled. 

Size and weight make straws particularly difficult to recycle. When plastic travels through mechanical recycling sorters, small, lightweight items like straws easily fall through sorting screens and end up being sent to the landfill.

Plastic lasts forever and pollutes our groundwater, hurts wildlife — through ingestion and coming into contact with their habitats — and can negatively affect humans’ health through leaching and exposure to chemicals. 

Although a straw may seem like a relatively small piece of the pollution puzzle we are currently trying to solve, over 500 million are discarded daily in the United States alone, and at this rate, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in oceans. Already, 71 percent of seabirds and 30 percent of sea turtles are found with plastic in their stomachs, giving them a 50 percent mortality rate, according to For a Strawless Ocean, a movement combatting plastic straws.  

To counteract these startling statistics, some Fox Cities restaurants have decided to stop offering straws completely, while others have started using reusable or recyclable alternatives. 

Kris Larson, owner of Becket’s in Oshkosh, says the idea to no longer use plastic straws in his restaurant began around the beginning of the new year. The restaurant now only provides straws by request and offers a biodegradable wooden stir stick for bar drinks that require it. 

Kris Larson, owner of Becket’s in Oshkosh

The restaurant is down to nearly zero plastic waste, and to fully phase out the use of plastic straws within the restaurant, Larson has tested many types of alternatives — from metal to paper. The best choice for Becket’s, and what they will soon carry, is a plant-based plastic compostable straw.

Larson posted signs in his restaurant, explaining why Becket’s no longer offers plastic straws and replaced plastic stir sticks with a compostable wood alternative. 

“We make, what we think, are the right choices based on a long list of criteria, and environmental concerns are in there,” Larson says. 

Harmony Pizza opened last December in Appleton and never offered plastic straws. “We never even thought about having straws because they’re not sustainable. They’re not necessary,” says owner Matty Burns.

Burns sees the choice to offer plastic straws to customers as irresponsible. His restaurant does not carry any plastic. Even the to-go dining utensils are made of a recycled product. Harmony Pizza offers customers reusable metal straws upon request. 

Bar430 in Oshkosh also offers a plastic straw alternative by request. The restaurant first stopped offering plastic straws about four months ago and now uses 100 percent compostable paper straws. “Amongst the staff, it was a thing that was bothering us — how dependent the human race is on plastic use,” says Justin Camacho, manager of Bar430.

They also replaced their plastic cups with glass and plastic stirrers with bamboo or noodles. Many restaurants and customers fear paper straws because of their tendency to become soggy after sitting in a drink for too long. Bar430, however, has not noticed this problem, and the paper straws work well as an alternative to a plastic straw, according to Camacho.

Phil Dubois, co-owner of Balloon Magic in Appleton, decided to ditch the plastic straw in the business’ coffee and french soda drinks for something more inventive — straws made out of pasta. He first came across the concept at Frank’s Pizza Palace of Appleton and thought it was a great idea. 

“[Customers] thought it was kind of humorous,” Dubois says. While it is better for the environment, it’s also a funny, but important conversation starter. 

Houdini’s Escape Gastropub in Appleton recently began adopting the strawless philosophy. To avoid any conflict, they still offer straws upon request. 

“It’s a great place to start. It is so little, and no one really thinks about the impact of millions and millions of these [straws],” says Chue Yee Yang, general manager of Houdini’s. 

Restaurant owners and managers like Yang find comfort knowing there are other local businesses participating in the movement, but there is still a long way to go. 

“In a lot of the bigger cities, especially out in California, a lot of people have already given up straws. I don’t see why Appleton can’t be there with them,” he says.

Throughout all the businesses, the response from customers has been mostly positive. 

Camacho notes that most of Bar430’s customers really like the idea of wasting less plastic, but some are not thrilled. 

“It is sometimes hard to get people out of their ways because they don’t understand the gravity of the situation,” Camacho says. “We try to give them as many facts as we are aware of.”

Harmony Pizza in Appleton

Burns believes a restaurant’s stance on straws is an individual choice. “It’s okay to put yourself out there and say ‘Sorry, we’re not going to offer that,’” he says. 

Although the impact may seem small, proponents says reducing plastic straw usage could lead to positive environmental changes. As the strawless movement takes hold in cities nationwide, it will be interesting to see the social and economic impact. 

 “Our grandparents got by without plastic straws,” Burns says. “I’m pretty sure we can too.” 

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