Imagine my surprise recently when I went to my local Wimpy for a milkshake and instead of the usual plastic straw, I was given a paper straw... Yes. a paper straw! With international awareness of the harm that plastic straws - and other single-use items in the hospitality trade have on our environment, it felt good to see that at least one South African food company has done the right thing.
What makes it even more amazing is that this company - Famous Brands, which operates 478 Wimpy outlets across South and southern Africa - in addition to a portfolio of 24 other brands and a local and international network of 2 853 restaurants across South Africa, Africa, the United Kingdom and the Middle East, has managed to beat some of the world's largest companies to the mark.
Earlier this year, the Starbucks Group announced that they would be replacing plastic straws worldwide by 2020 - an announcement that was met with disbelief by the markets. Granted, they have a global footprint that perhaps makes the process of de-plasticising a little more logistically challenging, but a large part of that decision was based on the financial impacts they would face. At the same time, a report by Greenpeace found that as part of their decision to cut plastic straws, their new 'Sippy' cup for cold beverages - which will be introduced at the same time, actually contains more non-biodegradable plastics than the straws they are meant to replace!
McDonalds - which uses 1.8 million plastic straws a day in its 1361 outlets in the UK, has committed to replacing these with paper by 2019 - and then only because of the UK Government's intention to ban single-use plastic products. It has no plans currently to replace the straws used in their other 36 000 restaurants worldwide, but has committed to 'researching' alternatives. In Australia, the brand is under extreme pressure from consumers to implement change now rather than later and globally, voices are being raised to force change.
C'mon guys, how difficult can it be to source and provide paper, bamboo and other natural alternatives - or stop using them altogether? The environmental threats posed by continued use of single-use plastics like straws, utensils, plates and cups are by now well-known, yet the food service sector seems reluctant to discontinue their use unless faced with government bans or a consumer backlash. Coastal cities around the world are introducing bans on straws and here in South Africa, we have seen cities like Cape Town and some along the Garden Route voluntarily taking a stand against their use, but still too little too late seems to be the reality! And what about the hotel sector? Well, if the Birchwood Hotel in Boksburg on our East Rand - the largest hotel in the country, can change to paper , what's stopping the others doing the same?
But are we not part of the problem? After all, our demand and acceptance of straws with every possible beverage creates the demand, and in the absence of alternatives, food service companies buy and supply the product. We need to be the change we expect by either insisting on paper or bio-degradable alternatives, or by refusing a straw in the first place. In the United States, over 390 million straws are used each day and while they are not the only plastic pollutant found in our oceans or landfills, they take almost 200 years to decompose and contribute to over 1 million seabird and over 100 000 marine animal deaths each year.
So to Famous Brands- a huge collective THANKS for having the guts and foresight to remove these items from our waste stream and for showing the 'big guys' how it's done.