ASAHIKAWA, HOKKAIDO – For some, an ocean full of plastic is the last straw.
That’s why a growing number of environmentally concerned restaurants in Japan are doing away with single-use plastic straws in favor of reusable silicone and stainless steel ones as a way to combat the global plastic waste crisis.
But while reusable straws have been selling briskly at chain stores, especially among young women, some people are hesitant to use them for fear of standing out or simply because reusable straws are a hassle to clean.
“It’s my custom to bring my own straw to work with me every day without fail,” said Komomo Tamba, 24, a Tokyo company employee who has been using a reusable steel straw for the past five months. This has sparked the curiosity of her family and friends, some of whom have started using reusable straws of their own. “I’m happy that one by one my circle is growing,” Tamba said.
The global anti-straw movement was inspired by a 2015 viral video that showed a team of scientists extracting a plastic drinking straw from a sea turtle’s nose.
Since September last year, Tokyo-based housewares chain Loft has been stocking up on reusable straws and related items, such as reusable chopsticks. Overall straw sales at Loft in September were about 4.3 times higher than last September, with reusables contributing significantly to the jump. Many customers are buying them as gifts.
As sales grow, the varieties have increased. Many newer types are convenient for carrying because they come in their own case or are collapsible.
The steel straws start at over ¥300 ($2.80), but there are also straws made from other materials, including titanium, said to be better for those with metal allergies.
But not everyone is jumping on the bandwagon.
“I think they’re good since they’re eco-friendly but I don’t know anyone who carries them around,” said Hiromi Hattori, 58, a housewife from the town of Otobe, Hokkaido, who was visiting the Sapporo Loft earlier this month. “Once they become common, maybe I’ll consider buying one.”
Hina Maekawa, a 22-year-old university student from the town of Sasaguri, Fukuoka Prefecture, said she has been using her steel straw for about a year.
Although she enjoys “the pleasant coolness of drinks all the more, it’s inconvenient to carry around,” Maekawa said, explaining she has to use a special brush to clean the straw each time she finishes using it.
She admits to accepting plastic straws when at a restaurant with friends, simply because she is trying to fit in. “If more schools and groups come together to join this movement, it will become more pervasive in society,” she said.
One company that has taken the issue seriously is Tokyo-based Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Insurance Inc. It stopped offering plastic straws at the cafeteria in its headquarters last October and urges employees to use reusables instead.
Since then, the company estimates it has prevented the use of about 170,000 single-use straws per year.
Family-style restaurant chains such as Gusto and Jonathan’s banned plastic straws in June. Diners who wish to use them are given biodegradable ones made of corn instead.
“If more people carry their own straws, the people around them and shops that see this will start to think about our plastic waste problem,” said Hideshige Takada, a professor at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology who is an expert on pollution.
So even if their direct impact on the overall waste problem is minimal, using reusable straws creates awareness, he said, and “the ripple effects of creating that opportunity could be very big.”