NORWALK — Ripka’s Beach Cafe at Calf Pasture Beach has heeded the environmental call to make the switch away from plastic straws, but it took six months of hard work to make it happen.
“I don’t know how people are doing it, if they’re doing it at all. I looked for them at the beginning of the season. I was told I’d be able to get them and I never got them,” Clyde Ripka, owner of Ripka’s said on Tuesday, just a few days after he finally did receive his first order of paper straws.
Ripka said his usual distributor, W.B. Mason, told him there was a backlog on the paper straws, which have surged in popularity recently. Instead, he was forced to order through a smaller distributor, at a price nearly 12 times per straw as he paid for plastic.
Ultimately, Ripka announced the straws’ arrival — though they were not the correct size — in a Sept. 6 Facebook post, to which he said he received overwhelmingly positive feedback.
But the fact remains, the straws are an added cost.
“It’s a worthy cause,” Ripka said. “But I was amazed at the wall that was put up “
According to projections by the World Economic Forum, by 2050 plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish. Better Alternatives Now, a pollution research nonprofit, estimates that 7.5 percent of plastic in the environment comes from straws and stirrers. Numbers like those have groups like Skip the Plastic Norwalk — whose Facebook page states that 500 million plastic straws are used daily in the U.S. — up in arms.
Skip the Plastic Norwalk started a local campaign earlier this year to eliminate single-use plastics, starting with straws, and educate local businesses about the damage done to the environment by plastics. Nearly 20 restaurants have signed on as of earlier this year.
Meanwhile, the movement nationwide has been so swift and successful, the largest producer of paper straws in the U.S., Indiana-based manufacturer Aardvark, was bought out in early August by the Indiana-based Hoffmaster Group, in part to increase production to meet demand.
Andy Romjue, president of the Hoffmaster Group, said he started hearing about the push away from plastic five or six years ago, but didn’t see it start to pick up momentum until November or December 2017. The movement was largely spurred by legislative bans on plastics, especially on the coasts, and ecological concerns spread quickly over social media.
“Our demand is way outstripping our capacity. It was that way when we came in and it continues to be that way as more and more demand is built up,” Romjue said.
In response, Hoffmaster is expanding its facility and adding machines and personnel to keep up with demand. Though Romjue warned it could take some time, depending on the rate of market shift.
Local efforts to ditch plastic also come in the midst of a changing global recycling market, in part because of tariffs placed on China by President Donald J. Trump, which drew retaliation.
On Wednesday, the City of Norwalk announced that it would update its single-stream recycling collection list as a result of the ban on plastic imports from the U.S. into China. Beginning Oct. 1, plastic bags and thin plastic film (including bubble wrap), polystyrene, paper and single-use coffee cups and straws are no longer recyclable.
Mayor Harry Rilling said he hopes the city might also take a hard look at drafting ordinance banning some of those materials.
“For the environmental issues that are facing us, we should seriously consider an ordinance that would ban plastic bags, plastic straws, Styrofoam cups, Styrofoam containers. Those kinds of things that never break down,” Rilling said. “A lot of communities are doing that and I think we should start looking at it as well.”
Others groups have acted as well.
In May, the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk announced it would significantly reduce its use of single-use plastics, in accordance with the Aquarium Conservation Partnership, a group of 19 aquariums nationwide hoping to reduce the about of plastic in the ocean.
“We’re trying to practice what we preach. Our mission is educate about long island sound and create stewards for conservation. Plastic in the environment is a huge problem. So it just seemed wrong for us to be contributing to the issue,” David Sigworth, associate director of communications for the Maritime Aquarium said. “We’ve had no real negative feedback about it. People are very understanding.”
The aquarium replaced bottles of water with boxes of water, eliminated all straws and plastic lids, and purchasing coffee cups and soup cups made out of paper coated with polylactic acid (PLA), produced from renewable resources such as corn and sugarcane.
“A lot of the burden on this fell the to company that runs our cafeteria and operates our gift shop. They went through a lot of hoops to find the best way to do that,” Sigworth said.
About six months ago, Harbor Harvest in East Norwalk responded to customer requests that they remove plastic, in keeping with their sustainable mission statement. They’ve begun the process of removing all plastic items from the store, beginning with straws and coffee stirrers. In place of plastic, owner Bob Kunkel discovered two options: a straw made out of pasta, or the “Ultimate Straw,” a stainless steel reusable option that costs $29.
Kunkel is selling the UltimateStraw out of Harbor Harvest at no profit, and the manufacturer donates $1 per sale to ocean research. He said the pasta straws are only slightly more expensive than plastic. Plus they can be used in cooking and are not backlogged. He didn’t have the same trouble with backlog that Ripka experienced ordering paper.
“On the pasta straw there was no price gouging at all, and they were readily available. But I have seen on other biodegradable options there’s been a delay in receiving the equipment and it is pricier,” Kunkel said.
But even with the store’s newly instated environmental accommodations, Kunkel said he still receives customer concerns.
“One concern was gluten free people who would come in and use the straw but have a reaction,” Kunkel said. “The gluten issue has become very important in the food industry, whether someone actually has celiac or just wants to remove it from their diet, any aspect. We have to tell people, understand this is pasta and gluten is involved.”