The snack bar at the Carolina Club golf course is stocked with the hits. Peanuts, packs of Nabs, draft beer and a warming oven packed full of foil-wrapped hot dogs.
Nothing is out of place at the golf course bar in Grandy, half an hour inland from the Outer Banks.
Nothing except the straws, which are paper, not plastic, and stamped with the declaration “Earth Friendly.”
These straws place the course squarely on the razor’s edge of an environmental movement gone mainstream, one that’s finding its way from major cities to the Triangle and North Carolina.
The rising tide against plastic straws includes Starbucks, which wants to eliminate its plastic straws by 2020, as well as cities like Seattle, which has banned straws and plastic utensils in restaurants.
Though challenges remain to eliminate plastic straws altogether — including municipal infrastructure, costs and the difficulty in changing long-held habits — what was once plopped into a drink without a second thought is increasingly considered thoughtless, as opponents argue a straw’s convenience doesn’t justify eternity in a city landfill.
“I call it being ‘Straw Woke,’” said Crystal Dreisbach, the executive director of local environmental group Don’t Waste Durham, and a crusader against plastic straws for the better part of a decade.
“The problem with typical plastic straws is they cannot be recycled, so you use it once and it lives in the environment forever,” she said.
Dreisbach is so devoted to her home of Durham that she mailed 250 personal letters in 2012 to local restaurants, challenging them to rethink their environmental practices, mainly targeting Styrofoam boxes. She heard back from only one, the Durham bar Bull McCabe’s, which switched to compostable containers.
“Back then it was, ‘Oh Crystal, she’s a tree-hugger,’” Dreisbach said. “Now we’ve reached a point of awareness, and it’s really created a tipping point as consumers. I’m glad I yelled at the brick wall.”
Locally, Durham has led the move against straws, including a “skip the straw” campaign in March organized by the group Keep Durham Beautiful and endorsed by Mayor Steve Schewel. More than a dozen restaurants pledged to cut out plastic straws for the month.
This summer, Duke University’s dining services department announced its on-campus eateries and dining halls had banned all disposable plastics, including cutlery and straws. The Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill announced on social media that it, too, is eliminating plastic straws and stirrers in its restaurant, Crossroads.
Breaking a habit
The truth is you probably haven’t thought much about plastic straws. That’s the problem, activists say, that the cheap, nearly weightlessly-thin plastic ends up in drinks more by habit than preference.
American’s staggering daily straw use is as much as 390 million, according to a market research study quoted by The New York Times, totaling many billions annually.
Starbucks’ announcement in July marked one of the biggest victories for straw critics. In the daily deluge of iced lattes and coffee, the company said it doles out about 1 billion of those iconic green straws every year.
Other companies cut straws as well, including Marriott and Hyatt hotels and Alaska and American Airlines. Seattle is the largest city with an on-the-books ban, though New York City is considering one, according to reporting in The New York Times. Several posh California cities, like Malibu, Carmel and San Luis Obispo, also have bans.
Dreisbach noted, as have others, that plastic straws are often essential for those with certain disabilities, and therefore a complete ban is problematic. She encourages restaurants not to automatically give out straws unless someone asks for them.
The reality is something used millions of times daily won’t disappear overnight, but the lifeboats are already here.
So far, compostable straws made from plants are in many Triangle coffee shops. Stainless steel straws are in a few bars, and paper ones are here and there. Caffe Belleza, a popular coffee bar food truck, no longer offers plastic straws but will sell you a stainless steel one for $2.
The Roadside Grill on the Outer Banks dabbled in paper straws but has settled on using long, hollow pasta noodles.
“It’s like a huge ocean liner, it takes so much for it to start to turn,” said Patrick Cowden, co-owner of Pharmacy Cafe on Person Street in downtown Raleigh. “Slowly, this will help push things around, and it will have a good impact on everyone.”
Cowden said alternative straws can cost four times as much as conventional plastic ones. He said he’s willing to spend more in something he believes in, but that it’s still a business decision.
The Pharmacy Cafe tried paper straws for a while when Cowden and co-owner Daniel Whittaker took over in 2015, but they weren’t durable enough, quickly turning into a soggy heap.
“They looked cool, so it was great if you were drinking your beverage quickly, but anything longer than 20 minutes and they’d break down,” Cowden said. “To me it’s more than worth the extra cost, it’s the right thing to do.”
While banning straws could keep tons of plastic out of landfills, even opponents are unclear why straws are being singled out, and why momentum seems to be building this year. Dreisbach said Styrofoam is likely the bigger environmental concern, and plastic cups contain much more plastic than straws.
“Maybe it’s because to drink you need a cup, but you don’t necessarily need a straw,” Dreisbach said.
Dreisbach also considered “The Turtle,” perhaps the patron saint of the war on straws.
The Turtle refers to a moment in 2015, when for the first time, straws seemed like something more than litter. Thanks to a now-famous viral video, they seemed dangerous.
In the video, scientists off the coast of Costa Rica had pulled a sea turtle into their boat, a plastic straw lodged in its nose. Over eight excruciating minutes, they struggled to extract the straw with a pair of pliers, the turtle writhing in pain.
Michelle Paye, the general manager at the Carolina Club golf course, said the video of the turtle weighed on her. The Turtle ended up being one of the driving forces behind their switch to paper straws this May. Customers aren’t crazy about them, she said, and thinking green is far from any branding campaign at the course.
Complaints about environmentally friendly paper cups leaking led to a switch back to Styrofoam, she said, but she wants to stick with the paper straws.
“For me, we want to keep our beaches beautiful and our oceans healthy; that’s why people come here,” Paye said. “It’s a good start to try and fix the problem.”
Despite an infrastructure of best intentions, the rest of the parts aren’t quite there yet.
Compostable straws are the leading candidate to replace plastic straws. They’re made with plant resins that enable them to break down into compost.
Compost Now is a Triangle company that puts compost bins in homes and businesses and periodically takes them to an industrial composting facility. Most plastic tagged as “compostable” needs to end up in one of these facilities, or it will end up as common garbage.
The difference between large industrial composters and the backyard composting bin is size and heat. Many of these compostable plastics need to reach at least 160 degrees before they start breaking down, said Kat Nigro, Compost Now’s head of marketing and engagement. That’s just not possible in an at-home compost heap.
Since health-conscious restaurant Happy + Hale opened two locations in Raleigh, it has served its food in compostable products, from the utensils to the salad bowls to, of course, the straws.
“We can have all the compostable products we want and educate with signage, but if the consumer doesn’t care, it’s going to end up in the trash,” co-founder Tyler Helikson said.
In other words, those who want their straws, bowls and cups to be disposed of properly likely need to throw them away at the restaurant, unless they have an industrial compost contract at the home or office.
“It’s a really challenging thing for us,” Helikson said. “We want people to care, of course. We have to do our part, but at the same time ... it’s mostly counter service at the Raleigh location, people picking up their food and taking it back to their office. I know that 99 times out of 100, that ends up in the trash, which is bad, or the recycling, which is worse.”
With the push of giant companies, small ones like Happy + Hale are starting to see the fate of straws, trash and compost trickling into everyday habits. They’re starting to think the future they worked for isn’t so far away.
“It’s still tedious and cumbersome, but it’s definitely promising,” Helikson said.