Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The last straw?

In recent months, there has been a steady procession of pub operators announcing that they were phasing out the use of plastic straws, the latest being the Deltic Group. The reason given is that, heeding the message of programmes like “Blue Planet”, it will reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the oceans and harming aquatic wildlife. However, it has to be questioned how much effect it’s going to have. I’d guess the overwhelming majority of plastic straws used in pubs in the UK end up in landfill, not in the sea. Plus 90% of all the plastic waste in the oceans originates from just ten rivers in Asia and Africa. It’s not to say it isn’t worth doing, but realistically it will be literally a drop in the ocean.

There is an obvious alternative in the form of paper straws. However, presumably there’s a disadvantage that they become soggy after a while. Are they really any more likely to end up in the recycling, particularly if they’re treated with chemicals to make them more durable? And one pub found out that, what they gained on the swings, they lost on the roundabouts:

It’s also hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s an element of snobbery in the campaign against straws. Straws are used by the scummy plebs when eating at McDonald’s or slurping giant cartons of Coke in the cinema; they’re not for sophisticated people like us.

Is putting waste into landfill all that bad anyway? In his book The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg shows how the entire production of waste in the USA in the 21st century could be accommodated in a landfill that covered just 26% of a single county in Oklahoma, or one twelve-thousandth of the total area of the country. It’s far more manageable than is often claimed. Of course waste should be recycled if it’s practical to do so, but single-use plastics have brought us major advances in convenience and hygiene that shouldn’t be breezily dismissed. Wanting to make everything recyclable is very much a First World indulgence.

The conclusion must be that dropping plastic straws is really just a piece of easy environmental virtue-signalling rather than something that is really going to make a significant difference. If pub operators want to take a serious look at their environmental impact across the board, shouldn’t they be considering stopping shipping water (which is pretty much what beer is) all the way across the Atlantic and abandoning single-use containers for draught beer?

27 comments:

  1. So which is going to be the first pub to use proper straws simply cut from the stalks of barley ?

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    1. The first one which is not afraid of being sued, when someone (an American, probably) inhales a caterpillar or earwig, I expect. HH

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    2. The other Mudgie !13 March 2018 at 22:30

      Anonymous,
      Nothing new would ever happen if everyone was that negative.
      Should Tim Martin never have introduced hash browns to his breakfasts in case a centipede crawled out from one in his Gate Clock venue at Greenwich in August 2015 ?

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    3. I'm all for it. The suppliers will probably have to devise some compressed air process for blowing them all through, to protect pubs from some $100 million lawsuit, for some yank tourist having got a money spider in his mouth though. Fact facts. (They'll probably go soggy too.) HH

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    4. Maybe, but that Yank will not be me. Or any person traveling with me!

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    5. The other Mudgie !14 March 2018 at 14:20

      A money spider isn't going to do anyone any harm and they are in fact known to bring good fortune.
      But some people won't go to a Wetherspoons venue in case they encounter a rat while others won't even leave home in case something bad happens to them.

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    6. "some people won't go to a Wetherspoons venue in case they encounter a rat"

      Is Tim really thought of that badly these days?

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    7. The other Mudgie !14 March 2018 at 18:17

      No, not really but I was trying, and probably failed, to suggest that fearing a rat in a Wetherspoons is as daft as fearing a money spider in a straw.

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    8. I'm writing about American tourists, who caused, by litigation for a mere dose of the trots, a whole nation (France) to abandon a grade of steak (bleu) and a treasured culinary tradition, not about you and me. I've been to Wetherspoons. I've even been to a Little Chef (memories eh?) HH

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  2. I don't think paper straws have to end up in recycling; the point is that when they inevitably end up in landfill they can decompose in relatively short order (unlike single-use plastic which tends to linger).

    As for landfill... the trouble is that crap tends to escape (through erosion, wildlife, leaching, et al) - with the possible exception of nuclear waste dumps, landfill tends not to be exactly sealed.

    I suppose the thing about getting rid of plastic straws is that it's a widespread and high volume single-use plastic which can be trivially replaced by something that already exists - so why wouldn't you?

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  3. I think the snobbery claim is taking things a bit far Mudge, and even if a ban is just a drop in the ocean, surely every little bit helps? I do agree with you though on other issues, especially that of single-use glass bottles for beer (and other drinks). Apart from the notable exception of Harvey’s, I can’t think of any other UK brewery using returnable bottles.

    Two other points to note. First I have not watched a single episode of “Blue Planet”, as I’ve been too busy doing other things (including writing this blog). Second, I’m old enough to remember the days of school milk (you probably are too). We managed perfectly OK back then, with paper straws, which were probably wax coated to stop them going soggy.

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    1. Ah yes, the fragrance of pencil sharpenings and wax crayons, alloyed by whiffy kids, and the odour of on-the-turn, tepid, third-pints of milk, warmed by the cast-iron radiators. No, I don't remember the wax-paper straws going soggy either Paul, but then it was only about three minutes between the Milk Monitor's handing out the sickly liquid, and the teacher's curt "Bottles in the crate! Straws in the bin!", so excepting scientific progress in the matter, who knows? HH

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    2. You were OK if the milk crate had been left outside, and you got a nice, freezing cold one; although I do remember the contents freezing, on occasion.

      But as for "on-the-turn, tepid, third-pints of milk, warmed by the cast-iron radiators." Yuck!

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    3. We had blue plastic straws for our school milk.

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    4. The other Mudgie !14 March 2018 at 20:56

      On-the-turn, tepid, third-pints of milk put me off the drink for life.
      I've not drunk any since junior school.

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  4. This current obsession with plastic bags is a real displacement activity for the middle classes. They may fly 10,000 miles a year and drive the same distance in a diesel motor car but they are doing their bit to save the planet by not using plastic straws.

    As for "every little helps" it was the late David McKay, one of the few rational environmentalists, who said "If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little"

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  5. we use an estimated 8.5 billion plastic straws a year in the UK, 2 billion of that is just in London alone and is more than the whole of Italy uses. Wetherspoons reckon they use 70million of them, thats one per person in the whole of the UK, they take 500 years to break down in landfill, assuming they get there or even stay there, most of it tends to end up in rivers, then into the sea, and then a proportion of it ends up littering the coastline.

    Adnams the brewery, hold regular beach clean days linked with the Marine Conservation Trust beach cleans,who are also supported via the sales of Adnams seasonal Fat Spratt beer. Adnams adopted a 1km stretch of beach in Southwold,and no-one would ever claim Southwold was a poor area with a straight face, at their last beach clean in September they filled 39 bags full of rubbish, with an estimated 375 bits of predominantly plastic rubbish per 1km, which is actually one of the cleaner beaches in the UK.

    so yes when I see a cocktail or a posh gin spirit being served most commonly with 2 plastic straws, forgive me for thinking thats a waste, and that actually we should stop doing it, because 8.5billion plastic straws is alot of stuff to be making and simply throwing away after 20mins use.

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  6. One of my haunts got a load of (very expensive) paper straws in last week I thought they seemed very substantial so on uncoiling the paper I found... wait for it... a thin plastic lining!

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  7. One the one hand you've come up with practical arguments for keeping plastic straws, which amount to 'they are not the main problem so we should do nothing' (not an excuse imo) and 'they are convenient and hygienic' (so are paper straws).

    On the other hand you've tried to make it about class and western society - come on man, give it a rest. We are talking about plastic straws here, not luxury cars.

    I do however agree with your last sentence: ''If pub operators want to take a serious look at their environmental impact across the board, shouldn’t they be considering stopping shipping water (which is pretty much what beer is) all the way across the Atlantic and abandoning single-use containers for draught beer? ''

    I have a few opinions/ideas on this myself but too long to post here.

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    1. Personally I'm relaxed about transatlantic beer shipping, as long-distance sea transport has a relatively low "carbon footprint" and in any case is a fundamental plank of our current level of civilisation and prosperity. I do wonder, though, how much American "craft beer" sold in the UK is airfreighted.

      But it does come across as hypocritical how some people are keen to display their eco-credentials on some issues while conveniently ignoring others.

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    2. Fair enough I can understand how it comes across as hypocritical - but at the same time, you have to start somewhere, and change comes incrementally. If this is the next step and not the complete solution then so be it.

      Worst case is, they might be doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.
      I do recognise that 'greenwashing' is a thing as well, whereby you make small changes like this to carry on doing the stuff that really damages the environment. Hopefully that's not the case here (I don't think it is).

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  8. The most sensible option would be to stop making them from polypropylene, which is probably the most stable plastic there is and essentially lasts for ever once dumped. If they were instead made from another material which biodegrades in say 12 or 24 months then the problem would go away. The technology exists to do this, but it won't happen because the straws would then cost more.

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  9. The other Mudgie !16 March 2018 at 15:51

    Many customers want a straw because glass washing machines don't properly clean glasses.
    We need to return to manually washing up glasses and then polishing them with a tea towel.

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    1. You would use less power and chemicals but the increased labour cost and space requirements wold make this idea a non-starter for most.

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    2. Also, glass washers do clean glasses properly as long as they are looked after.

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    3. The other Mudgie !18 March 2018 at 17:41

      Kieran,
      Yes, "as long as they are looked after" like when I've been in the Blue Boar but a couple of years ago in my nearest Wetherspoons a cider drinker, who notices glasses more because of the transparency of his drink, commented "Look at the glasses, they're filthy" and they were.

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    4. Yes i recognise it's a problem

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