As More Local Restaurants Ditch Plastic Straws, Supply of Environmentally Friendly Replacements Struggles to Keep Up With Demand

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Market Garden

Eric Williams, the owner of Momocho in Ohio City and El Carnicero in Lakewood, recently announced that he'd be joining a handful of other local restaurateurs — Sam McNulty of Market Garden, Matt Fish of Melt Bar and Grilled, among others — in skipping the straw throughout their organizations.

He tells Scene over the phone that the initiative is merely the latest in a series of efforts he's taken to make his businesses more environmentally friendly.

"We already use brown paper recycled [cocktail napkins], corn-starch forks and knives in to-go boxes, and recycled paper bags for carry-out orders," Williams says, "but the straws were the last step."

Williams says that he goes through an enormous number of straws. And in that regard, he's a lot like the rest of us. The oft-cited statistic, produced by a 9-year-old Vermont boy named Milo Cress, is that Americans discard 500 million plastic straws per day. The figure has been cited by environmental groups and mainstream national media outlets for years — USA Today, Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, The New York Times.

The Times, in a recent report, said that more "rigorous market research" puts the actual figure in the range of 170 to 390 million straws per day. But Cress' figure, at which he arrived after conducting a phone survey of straw manufacturers eight years ago, helped to raise awareness and incite a movement to limit wasteful straw usage. The city of Seattle, notably, has passed legislation to completely ban plastic straws from city establishments.

At Momocho, Williams says that every margarita sampler they serve comes with three straws. And that's going to change.

Williams has been buying straws in bulk at an estimated cost of 10 plastic straws per penny. Now, he'll be purchasing biodegradable five-inch cocktail straws — and only providing one per margarita sampler — and has sourced individually wrapped plastic straws to have on hand for customers who ask for them. These might be elderly patrons, children, or customers with disabilities, Williams says. When purchased in bulk, these individually wrapped straws come out to a cost of 2.8 cents a piece.

"If I were buying a million of them, I'd be taking a big hit," he says, when asked about the implications of the higher cost, "but the goal is to use a lot less. We want to train people not to use them. Now, we're not saying we're better or worse than anybody — we'll have them if people want them — but this is a way to do the right thing in a non-confrontational way."

There are steeper costs associated with other recyclable materials too. Williams cites, for example, his 2-ounce souffle cups. He's been ordering them in batches of 2,500 for $38, he says. But the corn-starch 2-ounce cups that he's now adopting will cost him $88 for a batch of only 2,000.

"It can be quite dramatic," Williams says.

But it's a price he says he's willing to pay to set a positive example and to build good will in the community.

"If we can help make a difference, we should help make a difference," he says. "Some of this stuff is just common sense."

Williams also says that he's following in the footsteps of guys like Sam McNulty and Matt Fish.

"I love Sam and Matt," Williams says. "Guys like that, with a lot of locations, they're setting the tone for the rest of us. And I want to make sure I'm keeping pace. I want to be part of this journey."

When Channel 19 covered McNulty's transition to paper straws earlier this summer, McNulty told a reporter that customers were extremely happy about that decision. And he says the same thing when Scene asks for updates.

"They're literally overjoyed," he says, adding that once the company's environmental goals are explained, patrons are thrilled to forego the plastic and become ambassadors for the cause.

When Scene goes to Nano Bar on West 25th Street (one of McNulty's joints) to corroborate, we see what he's talking about. We ask a bartender for a straw, and an inebriated patron leans over to set us straight. "No straws here," he reports. "We're saving the environment, dude."

Like Williams, McNulty's restaurants have shifted to a policy where straws aren't automatic: Customers can ask for them if they need them or want them. But unlike Williams, McNulty has shifted to a paper product.

And on that front, there's been a slight wrinkle. McNulty says there's really only one manufacturer of paper straws, a company called Aardvark, and that it was "caught by surprise" by paper straws' recent ascendancy.

"It's completely unable to keep up with demand," McNulty says, "All bulk distribution sources we've talked to, including Amazon, are out of stock."

So McNulty says he's talked to the local Ace Paper Tube manufacturer on Denison Avenue to see if they might be willing to start manufacturing paper straws locally.

"They seemed perplexed that anyone would want to buy paper straws," he says. "I told them I'd buy them by the pallet. There's definitely a business opportunity here."