Lola Coastal Mexican restaurant draws customers with the aroma of Mexican food and the promise of more than 200 tequilas to strengthen their margaritas on a hot summer day. While diners can have their margarita with salt and a side of chips and salsa, one thing it won’t be served with is a plastic straw.
Upon arrival, customers of the Highland Park neighborhood restaurant are greeted by a message that is becoming more common in the Denver area: Straws by request.
“Eliminating straws is a no-brainer,” said Dave Query, the owner of Lola’s parent restaurant company, Big Red F. “If every restaurant in the U.S. were to embrace this, from McDonald’s to The French Laundry, it would have a really dramatic effect.”
Lola is like a host of other businesses in Denver and across the state that are policing themselves as part of a conservation movement gaining momentum across the country.
Seattle instituted a citywide ban on plastic straws and utensils in restaurants early this month. Days later, Starbucks announced that it will replace disposable straws with recyclable, straw-less lids by 2020. Marriott International, Hyatt Hotels, Hilton Hotels, American Airlines and university food-service provider Bon Appetite are following suit, phasing out the plastic straws that are too small and lightweight to be easily recycled and transitioning to more sustainable alternatives.
“A lot of folks have been moving toward that for a long time,” said Carolyn Livingston, communications director of the Colorado Restaurant Association. “Trying to be a hospitable organization is what restaurants are all about. As customers want more sustainable options, restaurants are moving toward providing them.”
The restaurants also are switching to plastic substitutes made of paper, or in the case of Bar Helix in RiNo, copper straws. Most establishments keep a small inventory of plastic straws on hand, however, to accommodate disabled customers for whom they work best.
The straw debate is the latest piece of the larger environmental conversation that began decades ago with recycling and more recently focused on plastic bags. While they are responsible for only a small percentage of overall plastics waste, they are seen by activists as symbols of an increasingly polluted world.
“The straws I think are really an icon, the canary in the coal mine that points to a bigger problem,” said Harlin Savage, director of communications at the Boulder-based recycling nonprofit Eco-Cycle.
The plastics industry argues the bans fail to recognize the upside of the products.
“Plastic products are lighter and more efficient than many alternatives, which reduces their environmental footprint by reducing waste, energy use and carbon emissions,” said Mia Freis Quinn, vice president of communications for the Plastics Industry Association. “Investing in more comprehensive solutions to the challenges facing waste management and recycling will have a far greater impact on litter than a ban.”
In recent years, Colorado communities — most of them mountain towns such as Aspen, Crested Butte and Vail — have implemented a 10- to 20-cent disposable bag fee or banned single-use plastic grocery bags entirely. Since Aspen put a paper bag fee in place six years ago, it has generated nearly $300,000 and Liz Chapman, Aspen’s senior environmental health specialist, said the early grumbling has subsided.
The same has held true in the other mountain communities.
Nevertheless, bag bans and disposable bag fees — along with policies like Seattle’s straw and utensil prohibition — may be subject in Colorado to a 1993 statute tucked into larger legislation dealing with recycling.
Bar Helix uses reusable straws in its drinks. Both copper and paper straws are used in a variety of drinks and have been in use at Helix since day one. The bar was photographed on Thursday, July 13, 2018It reads: “No unit of local government shall require or prohibit the use or sale of specific types of plastic materials or products or restrict or mandate containers, packaging, or labeling for any consumer products.”
While the legislation falls under the purview of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, no means of enforcement has been established in the decades since its passage, Meghan Hughes, a spokesman for the department’s hazardous materials and waste management division, said. “If asked, we’d likely advise any jurisdiction looking to consider banning a plastic such as straws, plastic bags, etc., to consult with their attorney on the potential implications.”
Chapman said the law did not come up during a recent lawsuit over the bag fee, indicating to her it will not be a factor for cities enacting bans.
In May, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in favor of Aspen and its 20-cent paper-bag surcharge. The Colorado Union of Taxpayers, a conservative nonprofit, sued in August 2012, saying Aspen had imposed a “sin tax” without voter approval. The court decided that the fee was not subject to Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights.
Telluride town attorney Keith Geiger reviewed the statute when the town was considering its bag ban in 2011. He said its categorization under recycling leads him to believe it was intended to prevent restrictions on recycling efforts rather than preventing the regulation of specific plastic materials.
Denver attorney David Lane, a partner at Kilmer, Lane and Newman, said there is no ambiguity to the statute. “It’s plain words, and it has a plain meaning.”
To him, the legal framework is clear: Cities aren’t allowed to institute bans on plastic straws or bags.
That’s what city leaders in Avon thought too, but they nevertheless proceeded with their own ban in 2017.
“(The town council) was aware of that statute and advised by (legal) counsel, but we decided as a home-rule town to go ahead anyway,” said Avon town manager Preston Neill.
A 2013 effort to repeal the language appearing to stop bans died in committee. In the last legislative session House Democrats pushed a bill that would require grocers to collect a 25-cent flat tax from anyone using plastic bags, no matter the number. It too died in committee.
Despite those setbacks, former Telluride councilman Chris Myers believes the conversation will continue.
“There is power in the collective voice,” Myers. “And I think that voice needs to be heard.”