(From left) Leticia Brown, Stephany Ashley, Anita Durt O'Shea, Aria Said, Juba Kalamka, and Kalash KaFae MagentaFire pose for a portrait in the colorful lobby of St. James Infirmary, a sex-worker advocacy group, in the Tenderloin District. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Saying no to plastic straws doesn’t suck for SF businesses

At the tiki-themed, FiDi bar Pagan Idol straws are a staple. They poke out of ceramic Witch Doctors’ heads and snuggle up to orchids.

Typically, using straws sucks for the environment. San Franciscans can see some of the estimated three million pounds of plastic straws Americans toss out daily on Ocean Beach and scattered across the Presidio Green on summer Sundays. They are made from petroleum. They are not recyclable. They get lodged in animals’ throats and noses. Most of the time they’re completely unnecessary.

But Pagan straws are compostable; they’re made from paper. In this way, the bar provides for its patrons while reducing waste, protecting the environment and lowering its bills.

“We’re saving a considerable amount of money — $900 a month — on our Recology bill because of the diversion discounts,” Nikki Kozlowski, a bartender at the establishment, told me. “A lot of people are excited about the paper straws and high-five me.”

San Francisco businesses, like Pagan Idol, are something to celebrate. They’ve realized sustainable practices offer benefits in addition to the warm-and-fuzzies. Going green can help businesses save money and stand out in San Francisco’s competitive food service market. As the Trump administration rolls back environmental regulations, this rational environmentalism without government intervention is just what the planet needs.

“I don’t particularly like too much government regulation,” Keith Wilson, owner of North Beach’s sports bar The Boardroom, told me.

A surfer who cares about healthy oceans, Wilson believes “the only way to make a difference is to actually do something.” Like Pagan Idol, The Boardroom switched to compostable straws. He has also worked to conserve water and wants to source more sustainable meats in the future. While purchasing greener products isn’t cheap, Wilson hopes prices will decrease as more businesses demand planet-friendly products.

But his efforts have delivered short-term benefits. Recently, Wilson’s watering hole was named an Ocean Friendly Restaurant by the environmental nonprofit, Surfrider Foundation. Blue Plate and Asiento in the Mission, The Taco Shop @ Underdogs and Hook Fish Co in the Sunset and Piperade in North Beach also received the distinction. The title awards businesses with local publicity and bragging rights.

“People in San Francisco really like to know that an effort is there. It’s a tiny way for people to feel good about themselves,” Wilson told me. “I strongly believe it has been and will be good for our customer retention.”

More San Francisco businesses should follow Pagan Idol and The Boardroom’s examples, even if it’s to a lesser extent. Restaurants and bars can reduce waste and costs, for example, by only providing straws upon request.

Similarly, food delivery services could also allow diners to opt-out of receiving plastic cutlery, napkins and extra sauces. While GrubHub provides an opt-out click box; other sites, including Postmates and Caviar, require users to make special requests that are often ignored. This means restaurants purchase plastic products that go right from the factory to the landfill.

Of course, San Francisco could knock some sense into these businesses with more regulations and a plastic straw ban like the one Berkeley is currently exploring. But bans come with problems. The plastic industry has warned it will oppose efforts to outlaw plastic straws. The industry has seen success undermining bag bans in several states by persuading lawmakers they burden businesses.

It would be helpful if San Francisco businesses disposed of this ridiculous argument themselves. As the Trump administration attacks our environment, it’s vital for San Franciscans to act on their own, especially when acting is common sense.

“Now, we are being called up on to work even harder to protect our local environment,” Eva Holman, a Surfrider Foundation volunteer, told me. “We are looking to individuals and businesses to recognize this urgent need. Reducing the use of single use plastic, and straws in particular, is an easy way for local bars and restaurants to make a big impact.”

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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