Bars, restaurants seek viable alternatives for plastic straws

City's ban on single-use plastic straws goes into effect in April


When Milwaukee’s ban on single-use plastic straws goes into effect next year, bars and restaurants across the city will have to serve drinks sans straws, or turn to non-plastic alternatives.

But many local bar and restaurant operators are less than satisfied with the options currently available on the market.

“A paper straw gets soggy and the compostable straws are really only going to be good for the environment if somebody composts them,” said Leslie Montemurro, who is co-owner of Milwaukee-based restaurant groups Mojofuco Inc. and Toro Toro Toro Inc.

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Montemurro, among others, didn’t wait for a city mandate to adjust her business’ own waste-reduction practices. Over the past year, the group has worked to phase out plastic straws at its restaurants, which include BelAir Cantina, Fuel Cafe, Comet Cafe, Hit Hat Lounge & Garage and Balzac Wine Bar.

Those restaurants now hand out straws only when customers ask for them, providing either paper or compostable straws. But from a functionality standpoint, neither option is ideal, said Montemurro.

And higher-quality alternatives she’s considered, such as a type of straw made out of hay, cost significantly more than standard plastic straws.

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“Last time I checked (the straws made of hay) were about 14, 15 cents a piece, which just adds a price that we’ll eventually have to pass on to the customer,” she said.

“When you do mandates like this before there are great alternatives out there, it just causes problems for consumers and causes restaurants to be the bad guy in some of these situations,” said Susan Quam, executive vice president of Wisconsin Restaurant Association.

WRA educates and advocates for its members on a variety of sustainability efforts, including plastic use, food waste and food donation.

In preparation for the plastic straw ban, the non-profit is currently working with a number of supplier partners to find the most functional and cost effective straw alternatives for local restaurants. But for a price-conscious state, one of biggest issues is the cost of some of those alternatives, Quam said.

Local bar owner Mike Vitucci isn’t too concerned. His bars, which include Uncle Bucks, Belmont Tavern, Murphy’s, Caffrey’s, and Izzy Hops Swig & Nosh, currently offer plastic straws on a request-only basis.

He, too, has struggled to find acceptable alternatives to plastic, but said better quality products are on the horizon.

“Eventually you’re going to see a lot of competitors in the market… you’ll see more choices out there,” Vitucci said

Small businesses are not the only ones on a quest to find viable straw alternatives.

Prairie du Sac-based Culver’s has been testing a number of paper straw options as part of a greater effort to reduce single-use plastic usage. The company so far has approved one of those products to be distributed to restaurants in cities where plastic straws are prohibited.

Starting Jan. 1, the straws will be piloted at two restaurants in St. Petersburg, Florida, and will be used at the few Culver’s locations in Milwaukee, said Paul Pitas, director of public relations and communications at Culver Franchising System LLC.

He said the current alternative might not be the ultimate solution. It meets a city mandate, but it doesn’t necessarily meet the company’s requirements.

“If you’ve ever been to a Culver’s, you know that we’ve got some pretty thick dessert drinks out there,” said Pitas “We’ve got shakes and malts and mixers and we need a product that needs to be right for the guest and right for the system.”

Replacing plastic straws with the approved alternative will cost a restaurant more than $3,000 annually, which is a steep price for a small-scale franchisee, he said.

And Culver Franchising System does not assist its owner-operators with those kinds of expenses.

“Our job is to try to find the best solution,” said Pitas. “…We feel that there are better options that may be available in the near future and we’re going to be evaluating those as well.”

Quam said the city’s move to ban plastic straws is a “symbolic first step” in addressing a greater sustainability issue throughout the industry, and should not be seen as a means to an end.

“Those who have the ability to eliminate the use of straws or give out straws only on request are already doing it,” she said. “Maybe the discussion needs to evolve around the bigger picture.”

The ordinance will go into effect on April 14, 2020.

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