Vancouver Starbucks locations will be the first in Canada to serve drinks without plastic straws as it works to eliminate the product from all its stores by 2020, the company announced this week.
The coffee chain is the latest big company to acknowledge the environmental threat plastic straws pose and promise to implement an alternative in the face of mounting public pressure.
There's been a tipping point in the public's awareness that plastic is a global problem, said environmental lawyer David Boyd.
A video showing a turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose received more than 30 million views on YouTube, for example, said Boyd, who also teaches at the University of British Columbia.
Companies like Starbucks are responding to that surge in environmental concern.
Starbucks will make a strawless lid or straws made from alternative materials, like paper or compostable plastic, available at its more than 28,000 stores worldwide by 2020. It has created a strawless lid that will be standard for its iced coffee, tea and espresso drinks.
"This is a significant milestone to achieve our global aspiration of sustainable coffee, served to our customers in more sustainable ways," CEO Kevin Johnson said in a statement.
The strawless lid is currently available in more than 8,000 Canadian and U.S. locations for some beverages.
The Seattle-based company will implement the lids for all cold, non-blended drinks first at its hometown and Vancouver locations this fall, with phased rollouts within the U.S. and Canada to follow next year. A global rollout of the strawless lids will follow, beginning in Europe where the will be used in select stores in France and the Netherlands, as well as in the United Kingdom.
It's the largest food and beverage company to do so as calls to cut waste globally grow louder and plastic straws have become one of the most prominent targets.
"I think that straws are just widely seen as kind of the low-hanging fruit," said Boyd.
Some cities, including Seattle and Fort Myers Beach in Florida, have banned plastic straws. Vancouver will prohibit plastic straws as well as some other items by June 1, 2019 as part of the Zero Waste 2040 Strategy.
Similar proposals are being considered in places like New York and San Francisco, as well as by the European Union.
The issue is coming up in company boardrooms, partly in response to changing municipal regulations and partly due to growing consumer pressure.
McDonald's shareholders voted down a proposal requesting a report on plastic straws in May.
However, McDonald's recently said it would switch to paper straws in the United Kingdom and Ireland by next year, and test alternatives to plastic straws in some U.S. locations.
In Canada, McDonald's has said it planned to monitor the market tests to understand the impact the changes may have before making any specific decisions. A company spokeswoman did not respond to questions about whether the company planned to do any testing in Canada and did not provide a timeline for implementing any changes.
Rival burger chain A&W Food Services of Canada Inc. has said it will eliminate all plastic straws from its restaurants by the end of this year.
Ikea recently announced it would eliminate single-use plastic products from its shelves by 2020, including straws. Canadian restaurant chain owner Recipe Unlimited Corporation, formerly known as Cara Operations, and its 19 brands will phase out using plastic straws by the end of March 2019.
But banning the drinking instruments is only the tip of the iceberg, said Boyd, and does not solve the global problem of plastic pollution.
Plastic drinking straws make up only about four per cent of the plastic trash by number of pieces, and far less by weight.
A stronger, more comprehensive response is needed, he said, and called on Canada's federal government to develop a national plastic waste strategy.
In April, environment minister Catherine McKenna launched a public consultation asking Canadians to share their ideas on how the country can reduce plastic waste. Their feedback will help develop a federal, provincial and territorial approach.
– With files from The Associated Press