Save the whales, or save your car’s upholstery? A year into efforts by Milwaukee and Wauwatosa to reduce the use of plastic straws by restaurants and bars, customer convenience is clashing with environmental benefits. “Everyone wants good environmental laws, but they aren’t willing to sacrifice themselves in the process,” explains one local restaurant owner who asked to remain anonymous.
“It is important for our community to get away from single-use plastics that have no benefit for the environment,” says Milwaukee Common Council President Cavalier Johnson, who initiated the ordinance, which took effect in April 2020. It requires customers to first ask for a plastic straw before a restaurant or bar can supply them with one, with few exceptions. Violation of the ordinance could lead to a fine between $500 and $5,000. Wauwatosa enacted a similar measure last July, though it specifies no enforcement mechanism or penalty.
Anecdotal reports during the ordinances’ first year suggest they are being widely ignored. My two mid-April drive-thru visits yielded mixed results. At the McDonald’s at 7170 N. Teutonia Ave., a cashier asked if I wanted a plastic straw. The Culver’s at 7515 W. Good Hope Rd. provided two plastic straws without a request.
Education and enforcement of the ordinance was tasked to the Milwaukee Health Department, which has had some sizable fish of its own to fry during the ordinance’s lifetime. Emily Tau, a department spokeswoman, says no enforcement had been taken as of mid-April, but there are internal discussions about what enforcement might look like.
Local fast food franchisees say the ordinance made their restaurants look bad to their drive-thru customers at a time when most of their restaurants had halted sit-down business because of the pandemic.
McDonald’s owner Jeff Steren said the vast majority of customers at his Bay View restaurant “said they wanted a straw, but we had to ask them first. Otherwise, they thought that we had screwed up.”
“If we had waited for the customer to ask for a straw, they would have been upset,” says another McDonald’s owner, Marshall Chay. “So we took the interactive approach to satisfy the customer by providing a straw.”
Still, Chay says the ordinance makes sense and cited a story he read about a whale dying with a 200-plus pound ball of plastic trash in its stomach. But, he adds, “People want to do the right thing, but when they are drinking in their cars without a straw, it’s much harder to do. They make a quick turn while drinking, and the soda spills all over their nice, clean car.”
Oscar Castañeda, who owns two eponymous Milwaukee restaurants, says 95% of his customers want a straw with their drinks. “The moment that you don’t put in the straw, they say you are cheap.”
Johnson says it will take time for the public and businesses to educate themselves about the ordinance, and he praised a McDonald’s on South First Street for posting a sign explaining the ordinance. But he says, “For many fast food restaurants, it’s kind of muscle-memory to hand out a straw with a drink.”
Following a wave of such ordinances around the country, the industry is taking notice. McDonald’s USA says it hopes to source 100% of its guest packaging from renewable, recycled or certified sources by 2025. Spokeswoman Erica Jones says some customers had problems with earlier paper straws, “but following continued innovation, testing and learning, we have redesigned them to address these issues.”
Johnson emphasizes Milwaukee’s ordinance was intended to be “educational.” Could it yet be tweaked? “Of course, there’s room for improvement,” he says. “I’m happy to be the bad guy for a very important cause.”