by Nathan Strout, Times Record Staff
Times Record news story
WISCASSET — Renowned Wiscasset establishment Red’s Eats is ditching plastic straws for its 2019 season, and hopes to dump its other plasticware in the near future.
“I have already purchased red (and) white paper straws for the opening of Red’s Eats and a couple of my purveyors are also checking out products to show me as well.” said Debbie Gagnon, one of the eatery’s owners, in an email.
Paper straws will be the first noticeable switch, but other changes will be rolled out in the coming months. Instead of providing water for pets in plastic bowls as the business has done in the past, Red’s Eats will provide stainless steel bowls. Gagnon said she will be attending some food shows to get ideas for how to replace other plastic items that the business still uses.
For Gagnon, the push to stop using plastic products comes from a concern about the environment. Of particular concern for Gagnon was the thought of plastic straws entering oceans and harming wildlife.
“In the United States, people use more than 500 million straws a day – that’s over 182 billion a year,” said Gagnon. “It is a well-known fact that a single plastic straw can take up to 200 years to decompose. Even so, the negative environmental impact of plastic straws may come as a surprise given how small and thin the average straw is. Millions of straws end up in the ocean, where fish and marine mammals can ingest the plastic. Studies show that an estimated 71 percent of seabirds and 30 percent of turtles have plastic in their stomachs.”
Though widely cited, the 500 million straws figure has been criticized as unreliable by some news outlets, who pointed out that the number was arrived at by 9-year-old activist Milo Cress in 2011 after a brief phone survey of manufacturers. That figure has yet to be verified independently. According to a Reuters report, food service consultants Techtomic estimated that the number of straws used daily in the United States is still likely in the 170 million to 175 million range.
Regardless, Gagnon noted that any plastic kept out of the environment was a positive development.
“While paper straws may cost a little more, the feel-good emotion you get from a refreshing drink will only get better when you know your straw won’t have a negative impact on the environment,” said Gagnon.
Gagnon didn’t share how much it would cost the business to switch over to paper straws, though she admitted that the cost would increase.
“Costs vary,” said Gagnon. “The price is not what we have made our decision on.”
Greg Dugal, Director of Governmental Affairs with Hospitality Maine, said that paper replacements for plastic products usually come with increased expenses for restaurants. Switching from plastic to paper packaging materials, for instance, could come with a 40-50 percent increase in costs, said Dugal.
“For a small eatery that’s running on a margin of 3-4 percent, it doesn’t take long for those kinds of things to add up,” said Dugal.
For Gagnon, the cost is worth it.
“Yes, any ‘earth friendly’ paper goods are more expensive,” said Gagnon. “But a cleaner environment is worth every cent and hopefully will encourage others to follow suit.
Dugal went on to note that more Maine businesses are willing to switch to paper straws now because the quality of the product has improved in recent years.
“The quality of the product that has been available until recently has not been very good,” said Dugal. “It’s been difficult, really, for people to get a paper product in the straw category that was actually good. Now, my understand from the people that I’m talking to is the product is getting better.”
While more businesses are switching to paper straws, Dugal said that it was still a minority position among Maine restaurants. On the other hand, many businesses are choosing to only give out plastic straws on demand, which reduces the numbers of plastic straw waste produced. Dugal estimated that 25 to 30 percent of Maine restaurants operate on that arrangement.
Gagnon noted that some of her customers were already looking for ways to forgo using plastic for their orders last season.
“Believe it or not, I’ve had many guests even ask to leave lids off of their drinks, souffles, etc. So our guests are being conscientious and really caring,” she said.
With paper straws in hand and other changes coming down the road, Gagnon is ready to start off the 2019 season on April 15 on a greener foot.