Some feature articles are dream assignments; others are labors of love – this one is both! Roughly two-and-a-half months ago, on February 4 – Super Bowl Sunday, oddly enough, one of the biggest bar days on the year – the Town of Fort Myers Beach implemented its Plastic Straw Ban Ordinance for all beach establishments. Ten weeks later, we wondered: How do paper straws hold up under some of the beach’s favorite beverages, and what are some of the beach’s bartenders hearing about the new paper alternatives from their customers?
The Town of Fort Myers Beach Council at its November 6, 2017, meeting approved the new Ordinance that prohibits the distribution of plastic straws though vending, sales, giving, deployment or delivering them for any purpose, as when irresponsibly discarded, they pose an environmental threat to the health, safety and welfare of the citizens and visitors of Fort Myers Beach, as well as negatively impacting water quality and the surrounding marine life. When Council passed the ordinance, it gave beach businesses 90 days to go through their current plastic straw inventory. There are a few exceptions to the ban, such as those used on private property or at residences, by the Lee County School District or beverages prepared and packaged outside the Town, like juice boxes with straws.
In the United States alone, Americans use 500 million straws daily, for an average of 20 minutes per use, before throwing these away as single-use items that end up in our oceans and landfills by the millions, as plastic never breaks down, only separating into smaller and smaller pieces that slowly transform our oceans into a plastic soup. These plastics ultimately enter our system when we consume fish. Plastic straws are always in the Ocean Conservancy’s Top Ten most-collected items, usually trailing only bottle caps, wrappers and cigarette butts.
The easiest way to reduce plastic straws in our environment is to simply stop using them or only ask for biodegradable alternatives. In 1888, Marvin Stone invented and patented the original paper straw that remained the primary format, until the plastic straw craze took hold in the 1960s. Plastic straws were the principle brand for the next four decades, until the growing environmental movement brought back the limited return of paper straws in 2007, in response to restaurants, hospitals, and other service industries that are the main straw buyers. These outlets wanted sustainable, eco-friendly options that use natural papers and food-grade materials that are marine degradable and compostable.
“Most customers pretty much hate the paper straws, at least initially,” said the fabulous Michele, who barkeeps the legendary Lani Kai Island Resort’s main beach bar. “Depending on what you order, paper straws do not last nearly as long as the old plastic ones, or even the more environmentally-conscious biodegradable straws we had before the new law. The paper ones hold up alright under a normal drink, but one of our signature ones is a frozen Rum Runner with a shot of 151-rum poured down the straw, and those disintegrate quick! As a result, I go through probably twice as many papers straws now as I did before the switch-over.”
For Michele personally, however, the paper straws have no significance. “I sip on a Coke throughout my shift, so I will have a paper straw in the soda can for 3 to 4 hours at a time, and they work just fine.”
In addition to the straws disintegrating under the 151, another common complaint Michele hears is that the straws bend in the middle when customers use them to stir their drinks, but the Lani Kai solved this by providing small and strong wooden stirs. A little education also goes a long way! “When we first switched, people didn’t get it and really didn’t like the paper straws,” she recalled. “But once we explained that it is not only better for the environment, but is safer for wildlife, most people soon understood and agreed that the sacrifice is worth it! A few people adapted to it in another way, and simply no longer use a straw.”
My experience backs Michele’s conclusions. I enjoyed a frozen Mud Slide that took me roughly one hour to finish, and my straw held firm that entire time, despite liberal stirring and even banging it against the side of the plastic cup and the hard bar countertop edge.
I followed this up with a frozen Rum Runner with the 151-rum shot down the paper straw, and had a far different reaction! Within 10 minutes, my paper straw literally wilted, hanging limply like the proverbial wet noodle! Not only did it bend in several places, but the bottom soon closed, making it completely useless within 15 minutes, necessitating a second one to get me through my beverage in about 45 minutes. While this second straw held up much better, it did develop a slight mid-straw curvature.
At The Pierside Grill and Famous Blowfish Bar, in Times Square, right by the Fort Myers Beach pier, I ordered a vodka and orange juice. The bartending staff only spoke under the condition I kept their anonymity as if they were in the Witness Protection Program! “People hate them,” I heard in unison; “they fall apart too easily, and we absolutely go through twice as many as when we had the plastic ones.” Despite this, mine once again held up extremely well over the next hour, showing nary a sign of a bend or break, despite undergoing strenuous stirring and bar banging. When I pointed this out, the bar staff, echoing Michele, said it would be different if I were having anything with 151 or something like a Miami Vice.
Upon overhearing my clandestine conversation, Angie, who was visiting Fort Myers Beach with her wonderfully entertaining Wisconsin family, leaned in to show me the straw from her Raspberry daiquiri and, sure enough, it had the distinctive middle bend. Angie said there was no collapse to the drinking portion, she used the initial one to the end of her drink, noticed no ill taste, and, once she learned the environmental reasons behind the paper straw switch, particularly for the health of the wildlife and sea turtles, was happy to make the sacrifice, calling it “a small thing to do to help out our animal friends!”
If you want a great margarita, go to a great Mexican place, like Skye’s Restaurant in the Santini Marina Plaza, where the smiling Liz takes great care of you! “Customers were actually angry when we crossed over to the paper straws,” she recalled. “Even though they are just straws, some people were so set in their ways that it bothered them. Now, however, most people are good with the paper ones, especially when they learn that it was done for the environment, but you always have a few that just don’t understand.”
She related that Skye’s uses more paper straws now than the former plastic ones, but not nearly double the amount. “We do not do a lot of 151-pour drinks here, as margaritas are the king! I have yet to hear anyone complain that they diminish the taste of their drink; some people simply do not use them, and often I will give them their drink with the straw still in its wrapper next to the glass, and let them decide for themselves if they want to use it. Most people still do.”
Liz fixed me a strong and thick frozen margarita, so even though my straw didn’t have to handle an initial 151 blast, there was plenty of alcohol in the drink, and it was by far the thickest cocktail of all my samples. Again, I gave the straw a vigorous stirring workout, and it held up like a paper champ for the first half hour. At the 38-minute mark, however, the distinctive middle bend started to take shape, though I was able to complete my drink in 45 minutes without having to use a second straw.
The Final Straw
2018 marks my 30th year as a Fort Myers Beach bar patron. Are paper straws as durable as the old plastic ones? Certainly not. I never had a plastic straw bend or collapse under the weight of a 151 floater. I must agree with Michele and Liz, however, that paper straws in no way diminished the taste of my drinks. Like Angie, if paper straws are better for the environment and wildlife, they are a small price to pay! Having to use two paper straws to finish one Rum Runner did nothing to ruin my evening in Paradise!