The End is Surely Nigh For Plastic Straws

plastic straws

While the baby-boomer generation appears to operate on the sound, well-reasoned logic of “I didn’t get to see a dinosaur, so who gives a shit if my kids don’t get to see a polar bear,” more and more people – especially young people – have resolved to make the changes necessary to ensure that mankind’s future doesn’t involve squabbling over the last uncontaminated water supply while repelling giant nuclear irradiated scorpions with pointed sticks. Last year’s Gallup poll found just 12% of Americans aged 18-34 remained sceptical about climate change, compared to 32% of 35-54 year olds and 57% of those 55 and older.

Big changes tend to happen in incremental steps – sometimes almost imperceptible to the naked eye, so when it comes to changing people’s mindsets on environmental issues, things have to start small. For those who want their potables to be plastic-free, look no further than Zero Waste Saigon, who – just a few months into their time in Vietnam have launched a remarkably successful campaign to stem the rising tide of plastic waste. “Straws are the low hanging fruit,” explains co-founder Michael Burdge. “It is easy for people to give up straws or switch their straw habit because half the time they really don’t need it – they just take it because it is given.”

plastic straw and plastic cup

Zero Waste Saigon has targeted straws as a solution to reducing the plastic waste coming out of the F&B industry. Offering various alternatives to plastic, Zero Waste Saigon’s range of straws includes bamboo, green grass, dry grass and glass – all of which provide a more environmentally conscious approach to drinking. The bamboo and glass straws, by virtue of being reusable, are aimed at people who wish to take their own straws to restaurants or bars, but also serve as a means of raising awareness with the bamboo straws bearing the name of Zero Waste Saigon – a good reminder as to why you’re using it.

What started as a group on Facebook has rapidly gained momentum – in just two months, Zero Waste Saigon have over 2600 followers and have gained support from many local businesses owners, including Matt Ryan of Union Jack’s Fish and Chips. “When I opened Union Jack’s it was important to me to not add to all this unnecessary waste. So we got in touch with the good folks at ‘Organik House Go Eco’ who showed us the alternatives for packaging and straws. We went with the metal straws at that time. This was just shortly before the real ‘Zero Waste Saigon’s movement started and now thanks to their efforts we are seeing big changes throughout the F&B industry which will hopefully trickle down to every day habits with consumers.”

Bamboo straws made and sold at a bee farm in Phu Quoc.

Bamboo straws made and sold at a bee farm in Phu Quoc.

Burdge’s wife and co-founder of Zero Waste Saigon, Julia Mesner Burdge, added that straws are really just the beginning. “In the last two months, I’ve seen so many restaurants in Saigon changing to non-plastic straws, so I think it’s working! It’s gonna take time but maybe we’ll make a difference in the long run.”

Joma using environmentally friendly straws

Recyclable straws available at Chops.

The Burdges are hoping to address the local community and work alongside local government in order to affect greater, more lasting change – to do this, they’ve designed an ingenious set of medals and awards for businesses that are working to reduce their carbon footprint. “They are physical plaques that they can display in their business location. They will also be given graphic badges that they can put on their sites and social media. We will have a list of recipients on our website and Facebook group so that people can support those businesses.” Michael Burdge will be speaking at the US Consulate Earth Day event in a bid to raise further awareness in Vietnam.

These are still early days and many businesses attempting to execute these solutions to the plastic problem are struggling with the practicalities of it all – the Hanoi Social Club in Hanoi has done a lot of good in terms of catering to the greener issues of life. Offering a wide range of vegetarian and vegan options with a strong sense of community, they’ve drastically reduced their use of plastic straws, but speaking with the owner, John Sylvan, it’s proving tricky to implement a straw-based solution that doesn’t suck.

“Actually, we still have limited use of plastic straws for drinks like slushies which have lots of ice and can’t be drunk like a normal runny liquid. The biodegradable ones we’ve been using are too thin for that application, but for the remainder of drinks we use the grass straws,” he explained.

“The first alternative to plastic straws that we came across were bamboo straws, but like a lot of good ideas, they didn’t work in a real situation. There was reluctance from people to use a straw that another person had been sucking on. They required maintenance with specialty equipment and for some weird reason, customers chewed on them and we had to throw them out after not many uses!”

Even though the price of reusable straws is only mildly more expensive than plastic options when used correctly by customers, the issues that Sylvan faced seemed to multiply as he opted for the grass straws. “We’ve been trying them out. They’ve worked really well, however we are finding our supplier cannot supply us regularly enough.”

Bamboo straws made and sold at a bee farm in Phu Quoc

Bamboo straws.

It’s not just those in the F&B industry working to eliminate plastic straws – one such heroine on this warpath is Ara Kemp, a Filipino resident of Hanoi for four years. “I feel that although the production of one-time use plastics are the problem, if we get people to stop using it, manufacturers will stop producing. A lot of us know these facts already but we rarely practice it.”

Kemp got started after she received positive responses to her online reviews of restaurants. These reviews have so far led to two restaurants banning plastic straws. “For me it made sense to put the facts and the plea on paper with the Vietnamese translation and some helpful Vietnamese phrases to say no to straws and encourage others to give it to people and restaurants/cafes.”

Keep Hanoi Clean

James Joseph Kendall of Keep Hanoi Clean © HOT TABLE – All Photography by Mi Nguyen.

James Kendall of Keep Hanoi Clean has also confirmed that in the very near future his organisation will be selling reusable and environmentally sound straws on top of the myriad operations that he and Keep Hanoi Clean are running.

Early days indeed, but promising ones at that.

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