Merchants, patrons, city leaders share mixed feelings on reducing - even banning - plastic utensil use

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: BRITTANY ALLEN - Tina Hovey, owner of Mountain Moka (pictured middle), supplies reusable tumblers and mugs for her employees to use to cut down on waste. A large island of plastic garbage in the Pacific Ocean is growing — waste from an ever-increasing amount of buoyant plastic items flowing in from rivers and streams.

To curtail this environmentally harmful trend, municipalities and businesses are enacting measures to limit waste from plastic items.

The city of Portland banned plastic grocery bags in 2013, and more recently the city adopted a resolution to study ways of limiting use of all non-recyclable plastic items, which could lead to a ban on plastic straws in October.

Although the city of Sandy has yet to consider banning plastic straws, local business owners are exploring "greener" options.

City Manager Kim Yamashita said she was unaware of any consideration by the City Council to restrict or ban use of the synthetic utensils, explaining that though biodegradable materials may mean "less trash and an environmental plus … research on this topic shows that many business are negatively affected.

"(The) expense of alternatives would be my utmost concern," she added. "I have (also) run across (alternative products) in various cities and don't see a problem with their use, but research shows that not every community has the ability to compost or properly dispose of biodegradable products. Additionally, they are often labeled biodegradable but are not really. More research for the right alternatives would have to be done, and we would need to know what the impact to our landfills would be."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: BRITTANY ALLEN - Ron Lesowski, owner of Tollgate Inn Restaurant and Bakery, said hes been pushing to eliminate plastic straws and non-recyclable to-go containers for more than a year. He hopes to be using completely biodegradable, recyclable and compostable containers and utensils soon. Ron Lesowski, Tollgate Inn Restaurant and Bakery co-owner, shared Yamashita's concern about cost, but noted he's been looking into other options for more than a year in "trying to keep up with the times" and also decrease his business' environmental footprint.

"We really do a fairly good job of trying to be good stewards," Lesowski said. "We recycle all of our cardboard, plastic, glass and cooking oil. We've been looking at the big picture in terms of recycling, going green."

Tina Hovey, owner of Mountain Moka on Meinig Avenue, has had similar experiences with the biodegradable straws.

"The quality of the product isn't there yet," she said. "We've tried some straws, and they don't hold up. To find a good quality product in the quantity we need is still tough to do."

Hovey noted that the coffee shop still has some of the greener products on hand to give out by request, but she still mostly buys plastic straws.

Though she can't feasibly make an immediate switch away from plastic straws, Hovey finds other ways to be environmentally conscious.

"We recycle anything we can," she noted. "We use all paper products for packaging and we're looking to replace Styrofoam containers for hot to-go foods."

The baristas at Mountain Moka are also encouraged to use reusable mugs and tumblers for their own drinks throughout the day.

(PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: GRAPHIC BY MOLLY FILLER) - This is not a scientific poll. Data was gathered via an online poll and the first 40 responses are represented above.  "We plan to get on track, but the cost is prohibitive," Hovey explained. "The straws I buy now are 2 cents each. The biodegradable straws are 7 cents each. We'll be on board, but the suppliers have to provide more options."

Similarly, Lesowski at Tollgate is dedicated to getting ahead of the local curve with use of biodegradable and recyclable materials in his restaurants.

"The more people who go toward (greener alternatives), the more cost effective it will be," he said.

Besides cost and availability, Yamashita, in her capacity as a former chief of police, also mentioned the possible issue of enforcement should the city implement a ban.

"Who will enforce (compliance)?" Yamashita asked. "Our police, planning and code enforcement folks are already overtasked with work. I'm not sure how this would get enforced or by whom."

In Estacada, a mixed bag

In Estacada, City Manager Denise Carey said leaders are not considering a ban on plastic straws, and local restaurants have responded to the issue in a variety of ways.

"(Banning plastic straws) is not on our radar at this time. It's not one of the (City Council's) top priorities right now," she said.

Carey added that she thinks many cities around the state are likely watching how Portland's decision to limit the use of plastic straws plays out.

Nine months ago, Harmony Bakery began using compostable straws that are available by request to customers with soft drinks. In addition to these environmentally friendly options, the restaurant at 221 S.W. Wade St. also has plastic espresso stirrers available for coffee drinkers.

Owner Linda Lawrence said offering compostable straws was an important switch to make.

"We emphasize sustainability and buy all local and organic vegetables. (The compostable) straws were just the next step," she continued. "I want to live on this planet, so whatever we can do to reduce garbage and waste is important."

Along with environmentally friendly straws, the bakery also offers compostable to-go containers.

Lawrence noted compostable straws are similar in price to plastic straws, though Styrofoam containers are less expensive than their compostable counterparts.

She added that customers have responded well to the new straws.

"I think it's something people are becoming more and more aware of," she said.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: EMILY LINDSTRAND - Billy Ray Phillips and Lesa Ellis enjoy drinks at the Trails Inn Cafe and Timber Room in Estacada. Ellis says she mainly uses straws to stir her drinks and wouldnt mind if the establishment began offering them by request only. At Trails Inn Cafe and Timber Room, beverages typically come with straws, though it's up individual servers whether or not straws are automatically included.

"There's only one bartender who does straws by request only," said Brandi Hoke, owner of the restaurant and bar at 397 Broadway St. "On my shifts, customers sometimes complain if you do it by request only."

Depending on the type of drink, staff at Trails Inn provide customers with long plastic straws or plastic cocktail straws.

"We've considered changing it, but so many customers are used to getting them automatically," Hoke said, noting that reducing or eliminating straws would not have a significant financial impact on the establishment. "I think it's pretty common out here. A lot of regular customers are used to getting their drinks a certain way."

Though many appreciate receiving straws with their drinks, Lesa Ellis, a customer at Trails Inn, is more flexible on the matter.

Ellis doesn't enjoy drinking from straws, so she tells bartenders to only provide her with one per visit, which she uses to stir her drinks.

"If we switched to paper straws, I'd be fine with that. I have no problem with them. They're great, especially if you're going to drink your drink quickly," she said.

Plastic straw use has been on the minds of local restaurant owners.

"Now that it's more of a hot-button issue, we've definitely thought about the impact (of straws)," Hoke said.

"Many of us in the restaurant industry are making an effort to move in that direction (of reducing plastic)," Lawrence added.

One straw at a time

In East Multnomah County, there has also been no official ban on any plastic items, but Fairview Mayor Ted Tosterud, 77, is spearheading an effort to ban plastic bags in his city. He's calling on Troutdale and Wood Village to do the same.

He said the ban could expand to a prohibition on plastic straws along with Styrofoam takeout containers as both those items are non bio-degradable and don't break down in landfills.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: VERN UYETAKE  - At Ristorante di Pompello in downtown Troutdale, straws come with drinks such as this Italian soda. "It's time to take care of Mother Earth," Tosterud said.

If enough small jurisdictions start enacting bans, on non-biodegradable materials, he noted, it will pressure the Oregon Legislature to enact a statewide ban on non-recyclable or reusable items.

"I think we should fix it so no one should use Styrofoam for packaging materials, or anything else," the mayor said. "There's no reason the whole state can't do this."

In Troutdale, the city isn't rushing to enact any new resolutions, noted City Manager Ray Young, as a prohibition on non-biodegradable items isn't a pressing issue.

"We have many other important matters we are working on, and these issues are not high on the priority list," he said. "On many issues the city of Portland residents have a different set of priorities then those who live in East County. If these issues spark an interest in our community we will definitely make sure the (city) council considers them."

Young noted that if both Portland and Gresham enacted a ban on these items, Troutdale will follow suit.

"If everybody else does it, the ripple effect will make the decision for us," he said.

However, it's unlikely Gresham will ban straws, or any other plastic items anytime soon, as these issues are on the city's back burner.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: VERN UYETAKE - Troutini Chef Nick LaShomb talks about how he has no plans to change the restaurant's straw usage unless required by law.While Gresham staff is taking part in regional discussions about the usage of both plastic straws and bags, any local consideration was deferred because it's not on the City Council Work Plan for this year, meaning official policies most likely won't be dealt with until 2019. 

"In terms of environmental impact, we're really working on educating residents on how to recycle right, and to reduce waste in general," said city spokeswoman Elizabeth Coffey. 

Culinary shifts

Few Gresham-area restaurants have made pre-emptive straw-use shifts in response to Portland's proposed policies, but some are finding other ways to reduce their environmental impact short of a complete straw ban. 

Sunny Han's Wok & Grill, a popular eatery at the intersection of Main Avenue and Third Street in downtown Gresham, has made a simple change in their straw policy. The restaurant no longer automatically gives out straws with every drink. Instead, they are available at the counter. 

By providing a choice, the restaurant has reduced usage and waste, as only those who need a straw take one. But according to owner Judy Han, forcing a straw ban would be difficult for small businesses such as Sunny Han's. 

"The average business can't afford to find reusable replacements," Han said. 

In Troutdale, several restaurants have yet to make official adjustments to their straw policies, but owners and managers are aware that could change.

Troutini, a cocktail bar and restaurant in downtown Troutdale, still automatically offers straws with all its drinks, and the business will not alter its practices unless required, said Troutini Chef Nick LaShomb.

LaShomb added that a straw ban could be difficult because the increased cost could hurt the restaurant's bottom line.

There are a variety of other plastic items that all restaurants use, and straws are just a small part of the issue.

If a ban on plastic straws is enacted, LaShomb will not purchase reusable metal straws for the restaurant because they would get stolen often and, he noted, are hard to clean.

He conceded that straws aren't absolutely needed to enjoy a beverage.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: EMILY LINDSTRAND - At Harmony Bakery in Estacada, compostable straws are available to customers. Here, owner Linda Lawrence enjoys a drink with one of the environmentally friendly straws. "It would be a little weird to drink a rum and Coke without a straw, but they're not necessary," he noted.

Alicia Michelson, a regular customer at Troutini, wants to see plastic straws outlawed because they're a convenience — one that harms wildlife when not properly disposed.

"We should definitely enact a ban," she said while sipping on a cocktail without a straw on her 22nd birthday lunch with her parents on Tuesday, July 31.

A Springdale resident, Michelson often asks restaurant employees if the business uses straws. If they do, she requests that waitstaff not bring her one. Her mother, Maureen Michelson, agreed that calling for a straw ban is a good idea.

"I thinks it's important," Maureen said. "Straws are conveniences that can cause great damage."

She noted that if someone needs a straw for medical reasons, paper straws could be used as a more environmentally friendly alternative.

Just down the street from Troutini, Italian eatery Ristorante Di Pompello will move to paper straws if plastic ones are banned, but co-owner Saul Pompello said he wasn't worried about making the switch.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: VERN UYETAKE  - Sophia Pompello, 10, sips on an Italian soda on Tuesday, July 31, at her familys business, Ristorante di Pompello, where plastic straws still automatically come with sodas. The eatery will switch to paper sippers if straw bans are enacted in East Multnomah County. "I don't have any problem if we need to change to paper straws," he noted, recalling a time as a kid when all straws were made of paper and it wasn't a big deal.

The restaurant's policy is to offer straws with sodas, but not with water unless requested.

While paper straws would be more expensive, it's not a significant price increase, Pompello noted, adding that if a change is made, the price difference would get passed on to customers.

"They don't need them, but people like to have them," he said of plastic straws. "If people want to be really environmentally friendly, they should bring their own (takeout) containers."

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