SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There's a rising tide of concern over all the plastic junk flowing into the world's oceans. The city of Seattle is trying to do something about it. Starting tomorrow, restaurants and bars in the city will not be allowed to give out plastic straws. Other cities, including New York and San Francisco, are considering similar bans. From member station KUOW in Seattle, John Ryan reports.
JOHN RYAN, BYLINE: The world throws away more than a billion pounds of plastic every day. Straws make up a very small fraction of that, but they've become a sort of plastic lightning rod. Here's a young environmental activist speaking at Seattle's March for Science this spring.
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MEGAN O’REILLY: Hello, my name is Megan O'Reilly.
MEGAN: Go home to your own neighborhoods and cities and spread the word that you want a complete ban on plastic straws.
RYAN: With Seattle's new rules, restaurants can't just hand out straws anymore. Customers have to ask for them. And those straws have to be compostable - could be paper or a plant-based plastic. The same goes for disposable spoons and forks.
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RYAN: At his family's shop in Seattle's University District, John Noh is whipping up a bubble tea for a customer.
JOHN NOH: It's strawberry, kiwi and banana.
RYAN: Sitting at the bottom of the cup are boba, little bubbles of tapioca. It takes a fat, oversized straw to suck them up.
NOH: Paper straws are too fragile. And if left prolonged in the drink, we've found that it tends to kind of, like, melt and shrivel up. So we decide to go with a corn-based plastic.
RYAN: The compostable straws the Wow Bubble Tea shop has switched over to comply with the new law.
NOH: They work perfectly fine for now, at least in the cold teas.
RYAN: Noh says the compostable straws and cups cost more, but his family hasn't decided whether to pass along the extra 10 or 15 cent cost to customers. Midway through her mango guava bubble tea, customer Simone Kantola says she wouldn't mind paying a little more for her frozen treat if it helps the planet.
SIMONE KANTOLA: There's just such an overflow of plastic. And it's getting into the oceans, especially, like, the huge islands of floating trash and plastic in the ocean. And it just sticks around for almost forever, you know?
RYAN: The Plastics Industry Association did not respond to interview requests. But one of the world's biggest straw makers, Tetra Pak, says it's trying to develop little paper straws to go along with its juice boxes. It says the long-term ambition is to make all of its packaging out of plants, not petroleum or metals. But there's a kink in the straw ban narrative. Those compostable plastic straws, they don't degrade in the ocean. They stick around for years and can harm the turtles or birds or whales that try to eat them just like the petroleum-based straws that Seattle has banned. Advocates encourage people to choose paper straws over the compostable plastic. Paper ones can dissolve in the ocean in a matter of hours.
DUNE IVES: Our favorite alternative to the plastic straw is no straw.
RYAN: Dune Ives is behind the Strawless in Seattle campaign.
IVES: So imagine drinking a glass of water without a straw in it. It actually is possible. Or drinking a cocktail without two cocktail plastic straw stirrers - it's actually possible to drink it without those.
RYAN: Seattle officials say what's impossible is recycling plastic straws. They're so small they fall through the cracks and wind up on the floor at recycling plants. For NPR News, I'm John Ryan in Seattle.
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