BLACKSBURG — Jennifer Jen doesn’t wait until she sits down at a restaurant table anymore. As soon as she walks in the door, she has a message for the first employee she sees: no straws.
It shouldn’t be this way, Jen says. But most restaurants have developed the habit of giving everyone who walks through the front door a small, nonrecyclable piece of plastic. She doesn’t want it, many customers won’t use it, but everyone gets one.
“It’s so small, people don’t think about it,” Jen said. “But if you think about how often we come into contact, it’s really frightening the amount it’s used and disposed.”
Jen, the vice president of Sustainable Blacksburg, has been waging a war on straws with her group for about three years now. The nonprofit launched an education campaign in September 2017. One year later, it began circulating a pledge.
The promise comes with different levels of participation, from simply agreeing to train staff to only give straws to customers who request one, to not offering them at all and finally purchasing some sort of reusable alternative.
Bill Baker, the group’s volunteer leading the charge, hoped to get 10 Blacksburg businesses to sign the pledge in the first year, but he reached that goal in the first month.
Now he’s aiming for 20 restaurants.
Sisters Pie Charoensombut-amorn and Amp Dickinson, who run Café de Bangkok and Next Door Bake Shop, were a couple of the first to join. For the past two months the businesses has offered stainless steel straws to customers dining in.
The sisters bought 1,000 metals straws for each restaurant. Each one is soaked in sanitizer and then scrubbed by hand with pipe cleaners each day.
They say around 400 have gone missing already, as customers are still getting used to the etiquette around reusable straws. But overall, there hasn’t been any downside.
The local initiative was well timed with a broader movement around the country.
California will make it illegal for dine-in restaurants to give straws to every customer starting in 2019. Seattle has banned plastic straws and eating utensils at restaurants altogether. Companies like Starbucks and American Airlines have also promised to voluntarily ditch sippers in the coming years.
It’s a simple change and an increasingly common one. So Jen said it hasn’t been a very hard pitch so far, with just a couple restaurants outright declining to sign the pledge.
“There are so many great movements out there, but if you don’t have people in the communities doing grass roots work to move it forward, it’s not going to go anywhere,” Jen said. “Plastic straw is not one-problem-solve-all, but it opens up a window into this disposable culture.”
Sustainable Blacksburg’s pitch to restaurants concedes that straws aren’t the largest issue when it comes to pollution. But the nonprofit hopes by opening people’s eyes to this one piece of unnecessary plastic, they’ll begin to notice everything else they use for a few minutes only to leave rotting in a landfill for decades.
This has been one of Jen’s passions since her teenage years. After recent changes to recycling rules, she swore off yogurt that comes in nonrecyclable plastic containers. She carries reusable silicone and stainless steel straws with her and has convinced her three daughters to join the fight.
“We’ve kind of been known as the straw family,” Jen said. “For me, it’s been a really amazing experience to be able to bring my children into this kind of activism that is easy for them to engage in.”