Plastic straws suck.
More than just a ubiquitous (and unnecessary) convenience, plastic straws aren’t biodegradable or recyclable (because they’re too lightweight) and they frequently end up in the ocean and in the stomach of fish, birds and turtles – consequently killing half of affected marine life
Australian-lead campaign The Last Straw wants to put an end to the troubling environmental patterns brought on by the use of plastic straws in venues around the world. Founded by Eva Mackinley, The Last Straw aims to educate consumers about the harmful effects straws have when not disposed of correctly. The organisation also teams up with venues and councils to reduce the amount of straws distributed to customers on a day-to-day basis. Since launching in 2015, The Last Straw has partnered with close to 100 venues across Australia and expansion into New Zealand, the United Kingdom, United States and other overseas regions is also on the cards. And this is just the beginning.
The idea for The Last Straw sprung from an ‘aha!’ moment Mackinley had one night as she was binning straws and other rubbish after a shift at a Hobart bar. At the time, Mackinley explains, the conversation about sustainability in the hospitality industry revolved largely around KeepCups, reusable vessels for coffee and other beverages normally contained in single-use plastic.
“At the start, it was challenging to get people on board,” she tells SBS. “It took a while to get the messaging right, to talk about it in a way that wasn’t going to be polarising. People have really strong opinions about straws.”
The Last Straw was at the forefront of a rapidly shifting public consciousness, triggered in part by that hard-to-watch video of someone trying to extract a plastic straw from a turtle’s nostril.
“The turtle video was definitely a turning point,” Mackinley says. “Since then I think the conversation has changed. I have a lot more enquiries coming in, and I don’t have to market the concept as much.”
Dennys Kitchen, a Geelong-based Italian restaurant, has been a Last Straw venue partner for around six months.
“We’re part of a bigger venue [Lambys Tavern], so being involved with The Last Straw has reduced the amount of waste the restaurants produce by a significant amount,” explains restaurant manager Rick Jones. “We have signs informing people how many plastic straws are used and then thrown away, and we also keep the plastic straws we do have well hidden. If someone asks for one, we have to give them one, but around 80 per cent of [our] customers don’t ask.”
“It’s a hideous thing – a piece of plastic made to use once and throw away,” he says. “500 million straws are used and thrown away every day [in the US alone]. So, every 14 days, that’s the human population of the earth in plastic straws.”
Other well-known establishments jumping on board the straw-free train include The Newtown Hotel in Sydney, The Glass House waterside bar in Hobart, and breweries like Young Henrys and Mountain Goat Beer.
And it’s not just Australians welcoming the change.
“I’ve actually had a large amount of people reach out from other countries, like Chile, Myanmar, Indonesia, New Zealand, the US and UK,” says Mackinley. “A lot of them are looking for advice on how to start a similar movement where they are. Different countries have different needs when it comes to plastic waste. It’s not as easy for places that don’t have access to biodegradable alternatives, but the want to do something is definitely there.”
The success of campaigns like The Last Straw can be attributed to a huge shift away from convenience at the expense of the environment. Restaurants and bars that recognise this – by taking a stand against those pesky little plastic straws or offering discounts for KeepCup holders – are clearly in step with what the people want.
“Consumer trends are really starting to change,” says Mackinley. “The main motivator [for these participating venues] is not so much environmental, although that is a fairly big motivator, but it’s also about their staff and customers talking about it – demanding it. People want to know when they’re spending their money that they’re not also doing damage to the environment. If these businesses want to stay relevant to their customer base, changes need to be made.”
If Mackinley and all The Last Straw participating vendors have anything to do with it, the future of hospitality is almost certainly going to be straw free.