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The straw makes a statement

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The Last Straw Campaign is a hope-affirming plastic-straw-free movement that has found ready takers among some of the city’s restaurateurs and bar owners

Earlier this year, restaurants and bars in Mumbai had pledged to eschew plastic straws, pledging to both #refusethestraw themselves, and to coax their customers to do so. This was part of a global movement, which drew traction with restaurants from Australia to Myanmar to the UK, under the banner of the Last Plastic Straw Campaign. The campaign was started by the Plastic Pollution Coalition, which works with individuals and organisations from across the globe joining the cause under its ambit.

The baton was soon picked up in the hospitality industry in numerous countries, some in direct association with the coalition and some just fighting the menace by themselves. The movement has now gradually made its way to Chennai, with around ten restaurants and bars having signed up for it over the last few months.

“We roughly tend to use around 200 plastic straws a week, an effort has been made by providing straws on request and we’ve reduced the number to 75 a week. This is from about 900 a month now down to 350 a month on average,” states Nahshon J Benjamin, who handles social media and marketing for the Ashvita Group. Both Ashvita Bistro in Alwarpet and Ashvita Nirvana in Besant Nagar have pledged to eschew plastic straws, having done away with plastic bottles quite some time ago. The Brew Room, Chamiers, Amethyst, Mezze, Secret Society and Eden restaurant are the other outlets in the city who have joined in, as has Coromandel Cafe in Puducherry.

In Chennai, it is the Port Blair-based not-for-profit ReefWatch Marine Conservation that brought the movement to the spotlight. Terming it the Last Straw Campaign, ReefWatch has tied up with a number of restaurants already, and is in conversation with a number of others, trying to convince them to phase plastic straws out slowly, if not all at once. The organisation is also trying to guide them towards greener alternatives like paper, cardboard or bamboo straws, or reusable ones made of glass or stainless steel.

Needless waste

“How absurd it is that something we use for less than ten minutes before throwing it away goes on to poison our planet for tens of thousands of years. Plastic has become so entrenched in our way of life that it is a gargantuan task to imagine our existence without it —but we can start with small steps. The Last Straw campaign targets what is possibly the most redundant piece of single-use plastic ever invented —the straw. The straw is one of the biggest litter component found across beaches and oceans. We hope that citizens of Chennai recognise this simple thing they can do to protect the ocean and support participating establishments which in turn will encourage more hotels, restaurant and cafes to do so,” said Nayantara Jain, Executive Director, ReefWatch Marine Conservation.

However, affecting the transition is not all that simple. Bartenders, for instance, know that some drinks simply cannot be had without a straw because they have been mixed that way. For instance, a lot of customers would want to gulp down a monster milkshake sans straw. Straws are used by the hundreds in most establishments, and shifting to a different kind requires, time, research and monetary investment.

“Bamboo straws cost about ₹27 each, and steel ones — if you buy in bulk — cost about ₹15 each,” says Unni K, who handles operations for Secret Society bar. Plastic straws cost ₹15 to ₹20 for a pack of 100. “It helps that the steel and bamboo ones are reusable, though. We soak them in a hot water-soap solution to clean, and then reuse. A couple of customers weren’t comfortable with bamboo ones; they weren’t confident it would be clean. So we switched completely to stainless steel.”

All about mindset

It helps if the owner and the management identify with the cause, of course. “During the floods, we had stopped using and giving out bottled water. It took us a while to get done with the logistics (of straws); we began by giving customers an option,” says Sruti Harihara Subramaniam, owner of Ashvita. The establishment is switching over to paper straws, and even looking at bamboo options from some makers, but they think it’s worth it. As she points out, “The first plastic toothbrush that you used as a child is probably still lying in the ocean somewhere.”

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