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

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.

A large island of plastic garbage in the Pacific Ocean is growing, and that waste comes from an ever-increasing amount of buoyant plastic waste items flowing in from rivers and streams.

To combat the accumulation of garbage in the Pacific, 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.

In Estacada, along with neighboring Sandy and East Multnomah County, there has been no official ban on any plastic items.

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

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.

Meanwhile, Fairview Mayor Ted Tosterud 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 biodegradable and don't break down in landfills.

"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."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.

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

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

Estacada restaurants have responded to the issue in a variety of ways.

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, Harmony 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.

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 Estacada 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.

(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. 

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: VERN UYETAKE  - Springdale resident Alicia Michelson talks about her preference to not use straws for her drinks on Tuesday, July 31, at Troutini in downtown Troutdale. Michelson said she never uses a straw to enjoy a beverage.

"It would be a little weird to drink a rum and Coke without a straw, but they're not necessary," he said.

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.

Straws in Sandy

Although the city of Sandy has yet to consider a ban on 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 effected."

"(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.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.  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."

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 does find 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.

"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."

Straws in the classroom

A straw ban wouldn't affect many schools in the area because straws aren't used in many district lunchrooms. Other plastic, disposable items, however, are common in cafeterias. 

In Estacada, straws are not regularly used in any school cafeterias, though some are kept on hand for students who need them. Plastic cutlery is used because of a significant cost savings, and district officials noted that they are always searching for cost-effective ways to reduce waste.

Only one Reynolds School District school uses straws, and no schools in the Gresham-Barlow or Centennial districts use them.

A few East Multnomah County schools offer single-use cutlery, and the schools would simply replace that with metal or reusable plastic forks and spoons if those items were banned.

Plastic cutlery — forks, spoons and sporks — are used in all Reynolds schools, said Stephanie Field, the Reynolds district's director of communications and community relations.

Field estimated a cost of between 20-40 cents per item for the plastic silverware.

"The financial impact would include the cost of securing sets based on population for each school, including an initial bump and future replacement for use/loss," she said. "Labor costs would also increase slightly as impacted by washing, storing and stocking silverware per location."

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