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From a South Side plastics factory to McDonald's HQ, Chicago is on the front lines of anti-straw push

Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

A growing movement against plastic straws is playing out in Chicago, with restaurants and museums banning the items, and a South Side straw factory urgently seeking an environmentally friendly alternative for slurping down a soda or chocolate shake.

The single-use plastic straw -- colorful, functional and handed out in bunches -- has suddenly shifted from consumer staple to scourge, projected by some critics to foul ecosystems for an eon.

Scores of Chicago-area restaurants have already shunned plastic straws, along with colleges and a number of cultural venues, such as the Shedd Aquarium. This spring, the White Sox became the first Major League Baseball team to ban plastic straws from their stadium.

Elsewhere, municipalities are taking action, with Seattle and Miami among U.S. cities that have restricted plastic straws. New York City is considering a similar ban.

The plastic straw pushback may be good news for environmentalists, but it doesn't bode well for Best Diamond Plastics, a 10-year-old, minority-owned Chicago manufacturer whose primary business is supplying drinking straws to McDonald's, Wendy's, Portillo's and other restaurant chains.

"It hasn't really affected our business at this point," said Mark Tolliver, 64, president of Best Diamond Plastics. "If that gains traction, if we don't have a solution, then we're going to have a significant issue."

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Generally not biodegradable or recyclable, hundreds of millions of plastic straws are used in the U.S. every day, ending up in landfills, littering the landscape or floating away. Environmentalists say seafaring straws are ingested by marine animals and are one of the top 10 pieces of garbage polluting the oceans.

At least 8 million tons of plastics leak into the world's oceans each year, according to a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum. By 2050, there could be more plastic by weight in the world's oceans than fish, according to the report.

A 2015 University of California at Davis study found plastic debris in a quarter of the fish sold for human consumption.

The tipping point for many was a 2015 YouTube video of marine biologists in Costa Rica removing a plastic straw that had become lodged up a sea turtle's nose. More than 26 million views later, there has been a major shift in consumer sentiment against the once-heralded innovation.

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