The last straw


Photo: Marco Verch, via flickr
by lorraine duffy merkl

Decades ago, my husband Neil and I had one of our first dates at The Mad Hatter which once reigned the UES restaurant scene on Second Avenue at 78th. When we were served our drinks, the first thing Neil did was remove the straw. He noticed me looking horrified, as though he had just pulled a pin out of a grenade, and responded simply, “I’m no longer nine.”

It wasn’t a deal-breaker, but since I had always associated straws, especially the bendy kind, with fun, Neil would have to prove himself to be amusing company in other ways. (He did.)

It’s only taken 30-plus years, but I’m finally going to follow Neil’s lead and forgo straws altogether.

My decision was kicked off by what has now become a national anti-plastic straw movement (yes, movement) with advocacy groups out there like Give a Sip, Stop Sucking, and the Last Plastic Straw. But the reason to give straws up entirely was that I don’t like the alternative being offered by restaurants and cafes around NYC.

The other day I had quite a delicious meal at The Penrose on Second and 83rd but drinking my Arnold Palmer through a paper straw altered its taste. I may as well have sipped my ice tea/lemonade combo through a rolled-up page from this newspaper.

Straws have been around since 3000 B.C. when they were made of gold. Eventually rye grass was used, and then paper, which was to go-to until the early 1960s when plastic was found to be more durable. They were also a luxury — at least in my house. “We don’t need those,” my mother would say as we did our grocery shopping; our money better spent on actual food. Every now and then though I’d be able to sneak a package into the cart and she’d let it slide. Blowing bubbles with my straw was enough to turn basic chocolate milk into an experience.

When I first heard about places in the UK like McDonald’s banning plastic straws, I thought, Why don’t they just get recycled? But it seems that unlike other forms of plastic, single-use straws made of that material cannot be.

Today’s straws are made of polypropylene, in and of itself a highly recyclable plastic resin, commonly used in yogurt containers, bottle caps, toothbrushes and plastic utensils. But recyclers are usually cautious about the types of polypropylene they accept, and straws will rarely be taken. From what I’ve read, it’s been suggested that because they’re small, straws fall through the equipment and can’t be captured.

According to Earth911.com, the bigger issue than how to recycle plastic straws is how to reduce their use. In the U.S., we use 500 million drinking straws each day, an average of 1.6 straws per person. Hence, the recent cause célèbre is Starbucks’ ban on plastic straws, claiming that by 2020 it will stock them no more. (They’re still in abundance at the First and 85th location.) This could make the prime first world problem: How will one drink one’s Frappuccino? But we’ll cross that overpriced beverage when we come to it.

For all the talk about the environmental impact of plastic straws, those in the plastics industry lay the blame for pollution and wildlife endangerment not necessarily on the drinking apparatus, but on littering in general.

To those, unlike me, for whom, “Hold the straw,” refuses to roll off the tongue with the ease of, “Hold the mayo,” Earth911 suggests you bring a reusable one with you when you dine out.

For less than twenty bucks on Amazon, you can get a set of half a dozen reusable straws made of everything from stainless steel to bamboo. The silicone versions present in a variety of colors, patterns, and the requisite glitter. Some sets come with their own mini cleaning brush.

These of course will fit right in at UES eateries such as Wahlburgers, Pizza Beach or the Mansion Diner, and especially when dining al fresco in Central Park. But if you’re going to the likes of Sant Ambroeus, Daniel, or Majorelle, Tiffany & Co. has a sterling silver straw for $250. (The gold is $350 and there’s one with a butterfly charm attached for $425.) Hey, sip big or stay home.

Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels “Back to Work She Goes” and “Fat Chick,” for which a movie is in the works.