table FIVE 08, a notable Salem restaurant, stopped using plastic straws earlier this year to reduce plastic pollution and support ocean health. The reaction from customers has been overwhelmingly positive, the restaurant says.

The effort was led by manager Bobbie Mann and owner, chef Jason Freeburg. “We kicked off Strawless In Salem on February 1st,” Mann says, and “our customers are really excited about it.”

Mann says that at table FIVE 08, located at High and State streets in downtown Salem, “recycling and our environmental impact has been a concern of our entire staff.” The restaurant provides alternatives to single use straws with paper straws and wooden stirrers – but finds that often, a straw is unnecessary entirely.

In the United States, 500 million single-use plastic straws are used every day. Each of these straws still exists somewhere on the planet, because straws can’t be recycled and take up to 200 years to biodegrade.

“Straws are one of the top 10 marine debris found in our oceans and on our beaches,” Mann says, “and we are not okay with that. We started ‘Strawless in Salem’ hoping to do our part in reducing single use plastic waste.”

Why plastic use matters

Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) describes plastic as, “a global tragedy for our oceans and sea life,” noting that billions of pounds of plastic can be found in convergences on about 40% of the world’s ocean surfaces.

Plastic in oceans is one of the most dangerous threats to the marine environment and marine wildlife according to the environmental organization, Clean Water Action which says that it kills sea life and sea birds and impact 86% of all sea turtles.

The toxins embedded in plastics also seep into the ocean, into the fish and crustaceans that people eat – and microplastics, tiny pieces of it, even finds its way into common sea salt sourced from such diverse parts of the world as Australia, Portugal and Japan, according to a 2017 study published in Scientific Reports. 

The problem is increasing geometrically. Since the year 2000, human beings made more plastic than all of history before then. Because of its low density, plastic waste like bags, straws and water bottles are carried long distances to the ocean. CBD estimates there may be up to 51 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans — “from the equator to the poles, from Arctic ice sheets to the sea floor. Emerging research suggests that not one square mile of surface ocean anywhere on earth is free of plastic pollution.”

Alan Pennington, Waste Reduction Coordinator for Marion County Public Works-Environmental Services, commends table FIVE 08’s efforts. “Plastic straws are a great example of a product that has overstayed its welcome,” he says. “Cheap to make, yes. Operationally efficient, yes. Flexible and strong, yes. Ecologically benign when released into the greater environment – no. And that makes all the difference.”

By avoiding plastic straws, Pennington says, “table FIVE 08 is able to educate customers about an item that is within their power – both the customer’s and the restaurant’s – to easily give up for a greater environmental benefit.”

table FIVE 08 is not alone

Mann is reaching out to other local restaurants to encourage them to join the cause, but at this point, table FIVE 08 is the only Salem member of an elite group of US restaurants who have elected to go straw free.

In Utah, prompted by the group Strawless in SLC and the Green Party of Utah, 136 restaurants elected to take the pledge before Earth Day 2018. Recently, Seattle’s Mayor announced that in July, Seattle will become the largest metropolitan city to ban the single-use plastic straw.

In addition to its straw decision, table FIVE 08 is taking other measures to protect the environment. “We are going environmentally friendly with all of our to-go boxes and silverware,” Mann says. “Our silverware and to-go ramekins are made from plant materials and corn husk. Its pretty amazing the amount of eco friendly products out there!”

One such innovation has been introduced by Saltwater Brewery of Florida; a biodegradable replacement for the plastic six-pack rings that currently damage and kill sea birds, seals and sea turtles. The Saltwater craft microbrewery developed rings made of wheat and barley with a startup called E6PR Troubleshooting. The eco-friendly 6-pack rings can biodegrade in seawater – or even be safely eaten by marine life.

Mann believes that other Salem restaurants will follow table FIVE 08’s leadership and the city will advance in other ways as well. “This is just the beginning,” she says. “I recently attended a city council meeting where City Councilor Tom Andersen presented a motion to ban plastic bags in Salem and it passed!” Both Mann and table FIVE 08 sous chef Karen Moran have signed up to volunteer for this cause once it gets underway.

“Should we sunset plastic straws?” asks Pennington. “Yes!  When I was a kid they were all made of paper.  Didn’t last as long but, hey, they lasted long enough… Somehow the great civilizations of history were created without straws as part of their story.”