Paper straws draw attention locally | Local

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They’re customizable, biodegradable and popular among restaurants that strive to be environmentally friendly.

Restaurants across the nation are starting to switch from disposable plastic drinking straws to paper alternatives, and it’s helping grow one Fort Wayne company at a surprising rate. But the switch to paper straws may have unintended consequences for people with disabilities.

There’s worry in the disability community that paper straws tend to collapse in hot drinks or soup, and that soggy paper could cause a choking hazard, said David Nelson, CEO of The League for the Blind and Disabled. Additionally, using a paper straw may be difficult to use for people who have difficulty controlling their bite, including individuals with Parkinson’s, Nelson said.

“People are sensitive to the environmental hazard that (plastic straws) are,” Nelson said. “Folks with disabilities are sensitive to that environmental problem; they just need an alternative that works for them.”

Unfortunately, Nelson said, there doesn’t appear to be a good alternative to plastic, because reusable glass or metal straws come with their own safety hazards. Biting down on those could cause severe injury, Nelson said. Glass and metal also conduct heat, which could make them dangerous when used with hot beverages.

It seems almost every restaurant is exploring whether switching to paper straws makes sense for their business.

Fort Wayne’s Casa Restaurants is uncertain whether paper straws are a good idea. Tom Parizi, Casa’s director of operations, said he’s looked into the possibility of using paper straws, but hasn’t had a chance to test them.

Fort Wayne-based Aardvark Straws, 1430 Progress Road, says it produces the only paper straws on the market that are made in the United States. It’s been making the paper straws since 2007 after improving the original 1888 design patented by Marvin Stone. The increased demand has caused a spike in the company’s production.

The company says its straws are durable, FDA food-grade-compliant and come in a variety of sizes to accommodate needs for different size straws.

But it appears some distributors who serve restaurants in the Fort Wayne area don’t offer paper straws.

City Councilman Tom Didier, a salesman for US Foods, works with numerous Fort Wayne restaurants. Didier confirmed that paper straws aren’t currently available in Fort Wayne through his company, which sells food and other supplies to restaurants across the country.

Didier said U.S. Foods plans to add a paper straw – produced either by Aardvark or a similar company – to its catalog sometime in August.

US Foods is listed on Aardvark’s website as one of its many distributors. Other distributors on the extensive list include Indianapolis-based Acorn Distributors and nationwide companies such as Sysco, Aramark and Trimark.

Didier said he thinks paper straws are more popular on the East and West coasts.

“It’s definitely something we’re going to look into, but I can’t say we’re going to make the move yet,” Parizi said. “I don’t know pricing, packaging, availability. What if we make a move and the company can’t meet the demand?”

Because the restaurant chain does a lot of carry-out business and catering, Casa is always “looking at something that’s new and exciting,” Parizi said.

But changes have to be cost-effective.

There is an environmental cost to continued use of plastic straws. Because they aren’t biodegradable they take up space in area landfills, while others make their way into waterways. Plastic straws have been found in the ocean and are among the top beach litter items collected.

It’s something that’s gained the notice of government agencies as well. The Allen County Department of Environmental Management is now discouraging the use of any kind of straw, when possible.

In general, the department supports efforts, especially by businesses, to reduce waste to preserve natural resources and landfill space, said Jodi Leamon, the department’s business technical coordinator.

“Part of that is reducing the use of any type of straw by offering them only upon request,” Leamon said. “Single-use plastic of any kind, including straws, is discouraged whenever possible because of the short useful lifespan vs. the fact that they are often not recyclable or biodegradable. Paper straws are a better alternative because they can decompose and are made from renewable sources.”

The county also started its “Reduce Your Use: Plastic Straws” campaign earlier this year.

“Plastic straws make up a significant portion of the plastic pollution in our waterways and natural areas, where they pose a threat to wildlife,” the department’s website states. “Even if they are properly disposed of, plastic straws never go away; they are not recyclable and do not decompose.”

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