A monkey, an umbrella, a swizzle stick and two straws, one straight up and one bent. Welcome to bar-land in the '60s and '70s, where paper straws are out and the more plastic there is in your drink the better. Circa 2018, however, and single-use plastic is far from cool. Major supermarkets have begun banning plastic bags, reusable coffee cups are a must-have accessory, and the Queen has pledged to go plastic-free at Buckingham Palace.
In Sydney, Harriet Leigh, head of hospitality at Archie Rose Distilling Co., is on her own mission to curb plastic pollution. She wants Sydney to suck it up and stop using plastic straws. "I want the entire city to be straw-free by 1 January 2019," she says, "and I don't want anyone to think we can't do it."
The war on single-use plastics around the world gathered momentum in 2015, after a video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nostril went viral; it has been viewed more than 20 million times. Since then, it's also been widely reported that by 2050, the amount of plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish. "Sydney is a beach-loving society," says Leigh. "A lot of people start or end their day at the beach, and I think that's the way to get people to care."
Now approaching the third quarter of her year-long quest to rid Sydney of plastic straws, Leigh is urging businesses to make a policy of only serving them on request, and to source biodegradable alternatives. Her aha moment came on New Year's Day this year at Archie Rose's bar, when a colleague tripped while taking out the rubbish and a wheelie bin went flying. "What came out was 2,000 straws," she says. Not only does a bartender serve hundreds of straws a shift, but they also taste the drinks with just as many. A gin and tonic, often served with a straw, might be slurped up in minutes, but the plastic could take 200 years to break down. "In a bar the ice melts, the glass is recycled, the limes rot, the paper napkins break down. It's always only the straw-plastic that's left," says Leigh.
The numbers are frightening. Australians use more than 10 million straws every day; they're considered one of "the big four" single-use plastics, along with coffee cups, grocery bags and water bottles. They're also one of the most common plastics found in the ocean. In Australia, a national campaign and online directory called The Last Straw was founded in 2015 to urge people to re-evaluate the need for straws. They're undoubtedly the easiest single-use plastic to say no to, but this requires proactive change in habit from consumers and businesses.
Archie Rose only offers straws on request, as does the Lord Gladstone hotel in Sydney's Chippendale. "We use them way more from habit than need," says Leigh, "and unless it's a coconut or a Mint Julep, most drinks don't require one anyway."
Other Sydney venues that have joined the movement include Big Poppa's, Bulletin Place, Newtown Hotel and Young Henrys brewery. At Orchard St juice bar, which has three locations in Sydney, a 100 per cent biodegradable straw has been sourced as an alternative, while at Dead Ringer bar and restaurant, plastic has been replaced with a reusable metal straw. Nationwide, there are many venues who've already said no to plastic straws including the Grace Darling Hotel and Bar Liberty in Melbourne, Hobart's Society and Alabama Hotel, All Inn Brewing Co in Brisbane and Small Print and Print Hall in Perth. There are also more than 30 tourism operators in Port Douglas and Cairns campaigning to have them banned at businesses within the Great Barrier Reef.
Blackheath, in the Blue Mountains, is the first town in Australia to ditch plastic straws entirely. Blackheath resident Lis Bastian convinced the town's 30 businesses to agree to it – from the service station to the grocers and cafés – and placed a bulk order for the entire town of waxed paper straws from Aardvark, an American manufacturer.
It's an admirable accomplishment, but there's also no McDonald's or Starbucks in Blackheath. To gain serious clout in Sydney, the movement will require major fast-food outlets and corporations to get behind it, too. "My game plan originally was to get Sydney's biggest hospitality players like Swillhouse and Merivale, and then I thought everyone else would follow," says Leigh. "But it isn't that easy. First we have to re-educate people to not want a straw in their drink." Once there's major groundswell, hopefully the big guys will follow.
The quest isn't purely environmental for Leigh, either. "When you drink red wine or a single-malt, you appreciate the drink first with your eyes, then with your nose, then with your mouth," she says. "If you use a straw, you put four inches of plastic between you and the drink immediately."
Other cities have been successful in going straw-free. Chester in the UK is on its way with more than 30 businesses banning them, and Seattle in the US will ban plastic straws from July. In Taiwan – home of boba, or bubble tea – plastic straws will be banned from all fast-food outlets by 2019, and completely gone the following year. Meanwhile, the EU has plans to make all plastic in Europe recyclable or reusable by 2030.
But 2030 is too far off for Sydney, says Leigh. Now's the time to say no to a culture of convenience, and yes to one that cares for the environment. "It'd be really cool for our city to do something first," she says, regarding the 1 January deadline. "We've got such a bad rap with our bar and nightlife, but with this we could say, you know what, Sydney's actually quite progressive."
Your venue can pledge to go straw-free by registering at laststraw.com.au.