Plastic straw bans may be flawed and practically inconsequential, but they’re a flash point in the battle to change the way big companies behave.
“EXCUSE ME, BUT YOU forgot to give us water,” the woman at table nine said to her server. Like many restaurant customers, she possessed the expectation that water is always served with a meal. But the server hadn’t forgotten. It was by design.
As a brewery, we use a lot of water. It takes water to make beer, of course, but it takes even more to cool it down after it boils and clean all the equipment involved. Breweries have become increasingly conscious of their water use and have adopted methods of conserving and reclaiming it. Customers applaud the effort on the brewing side but not necessarily in the dining room. Most people still order water by habit though they rarely drink more than a sip and usually leave a full glass on the table. After witnessing just how much we poured down the drain each day, our sustainability team asked our servers to serve water only if a customer asked for it and if they did, to serve it in 10 ounce water glasses instead of the standard pint. The server filled the customer one of these and brought it to her table.
The woman stared at the small glass before her. “There’s no straw,” she sighed. “Yes,” the server said. “About that…” Thanks again to the influence of our sustainability team, we had just discontinued the use of straws. We kept some on hand for customers that required special accommodations, but we no longer used plastic straws in our business and they were on their way to becoming a thing of the past altogether.
After nearly 70 years of widespread use throughout the world, plastic straws fell out of favor with American hospitality in 2018. “Utensil non grata,” said the Wall Street Journal. And for good reason. They’re too small to be recycled, they don’t break down in landfills and they’re everywhere; some estimates say Americans alone use 500 million daily. The movement to ban straws and other single-use plastics had been slowly gaining steam but when a video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw being removed from its nose went viral in the summer of 2018, it reached its tipping point. Cities like Seattle and even entire states like California pledged to ban their use; corporate giants Starbucks and Disney vowed the same. Locally, restaurants and breweries announced their straw bans on social media and before long, our staff was pressuring us to follow suit.
Activists rejoiced at the victory against this high-profile single-use plastic, but it wasn’t unanimous. Critics were quick to point out that straws account for less than one quarter of one percent of the plastic waste in our oceans. They condemned straw activism as being a mile wide and an inch deep and warned it may distract from more useful efforts to ban plastics. Plus, the bans affected the disability community in very real ways. And all of this is true. Banning plastic straws is obviously a very small and flawed step. But what’s most notable about the bans are the avenues through which they arrived. This wasn’t companies suddenly recognizing a harmful practice. It was the tail wagging the dog. For us, the tail was our own young team members. They made it happen, right down to sourcing paper straws and developing a customer education plan. I’m not sure something like this would have happened 20 years ago. Joined with like-minded others across the country, our staff set out to reverse a nearly century-old consumer habit in the span of one summer. And by many metrics, they did it. And they didn’t need an employee resource group or suggestion box to get started; they simply got together to find ways to see their interests reflected in the way their workplace does business.
It’s easy to see how industry’s influence on the marketplace is shrinking. Gone are the days of corporations being able to use their power and influence to control customer attitudes. Our team members are prepared to speak up for what they want and with their mastery of the digital platform, they possess the most powerful megaphone of all time. This alone gives them the ability to shape our business faster than we can. Though we’re privately-held, they are very much our stakeholders. When they weigh in, we must listen. And if we pay close enough attention, we’ll see we can learn a lot about the future of our companies from the fate of the lowly straw.