ELLSWORTH — If you’ve picked up a drink at Pat’s Pizza lately, you may have noticed something a little different — or absent, that is.
In a move toward more sustainable dining, the restaurant recently made the switch to “straws upon request.” And soon, said General Manager Tim McCarthy, those plastic straws will be gone altogether, replaced with a biodegradable version made from corn.
“I just figured it was the right thing to do,” McCarthy said.
It’s no secret that there’s a lot of plastic in the world and that a lot of it is floating in the ocean. Trash is piling up on beaches and accumulating in gyres such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. According to a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum, if humanity continues on its current track, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish (by weight) by the year 2050.
In recent years, single-use plastic straws and disposable utensils have come under fire as some of the top polluters of the world’s beaches. While scientists say banning them probably won’t single-handedly solve the problem of plastic in the oceans (the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was found to be 46 percent old or discarded fishing nets, according to a 2018 study published in Scientific Reports), it likely can’t hurt. As a result, restaurants around the world have begun switching to biodegradable or compostable straws and utensils. Seattle banned plastic straws and utensils as of July 1, and McDonald’s has been “trialing” paper straws at all of its locations in the United Kingdom.
Pat’s Pizza announced in a May Facebook post that it would be switching to biodegradable straws, takeout containers and bags. In the same post, restaurant staff members wrote they would be giving out straws and extra napkins “only by request,” and “looking into the feasibility of developing a compost program with our food waste.” (The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 21 percent of waste brought to landfills is food.)
“I started seeing the newspaper and TV reports about this huge floating island of plastic out in the Pacific,” McCarthy said. “We’re one of the busiest restaurants in Downeast Maine, and I figured what better place to start than somebody who produces more than our fair share of it.”
McCarthy tested a number of different straws before settling on a compostable one from EcoProducts that he said is “indiscernible from a plastic straw.”
The restaurant will phase the straws and other biodegradable products in when inventory runs out, McCarthy said.
But the switch hasn’t come cheap. The biodegradable straws are roughly twice the price of regular plastic ones, McCarthy said. A case of 7.75-inch green wrapped straws retails for $210.97 on the company’s website for a case of 9,600, or about 2 cents each. Aardvark, which makes some of the top-of-the-line paper straws, advertises a case of 4,800 for $250 — around 5 cents each. That may not seem like much, but it’s a staggering 671 percent increase over the cost of a case of regular white with red stripe jumbo straws from webrestaurantstore.com, which retail for about half a penny a piece, or $13.49 for a case of 2,000 straws.
But McCarthy says the switch is worth it, and that customers seem to have adapted to straw-less drinks.
“I walk around through the restaurant and I see far more drinks without straws in them now than there used to be,” he said. “I haven’t had any complaints.”
Chef and owner of the Union River Lobster Pot Brian Langley said he has also looked into transitioning to paper or biodegradable straws.
“I think we probably will once we run out of supply,” said Langley, who said he’s also considering implementing a “straws upon request” policy.
Paper or biodegradable straws are “about three times as expensive,” and would have to be special-ordered, said Langley, which also means an extra shipping cost. He noted the rise in plastic straws in recent decades.
“I don’t really remember straws growing up in the restaurant business,” said Langley. “Until McDonald’s came along and you got a 32-ounce cup and you needed something to get to the bottom of it.”
Langley said although banning plastic straws is not likely to solve climate change, he appreciates the push toward more environmentally friendly materials. Maybe, he added, “It’s the last straw.”