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Stirring up a Storm

THE SINGLE-USE PLASTIC STRAW has never been recog- nised as a major environmental concern among academia or conservationists until it appeared in August 2015, when a straw was removed from the nose of a sea turtle.  The outpouring of concern for the turtle and the anger against the single-use straw raised global concern and the turtle became the anti-plastic poster child. As of November 4th 2018, over 33 million people have viewed the video (https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=4wH878t78bw).

Given the pain and suffering endured by the turtle and other marine life as well as birds, the Kuching public has been alerted through mainstream and social media to do away with single- use plastic straws. Earlier this year, the Wildlife Conservation Society Malaysia Program felt that a natural way to galvanise support for the removal of single-use plastic straws from our environment was to replace them with paper straws. Apart from this, ‘zero-straws behaviour’ was also encouraged, as customers then could just sip their drinks. Still another view proposed that Kuchingnites should go retro with long- handled spoons – the original implements prior to single-use stirrers.

These approaches raised concerns as owners and managers of eateries feared customers would reject paper straws as these melt and that ‘customers will boycott our eateries if we no longer provide single-use plastic straws’.

Empirical evidence was needed to examine whether all customers were indeed so discriminating and reluctant to give up plastic straws.

Twenty eateries volunteered to be part of the paper-straw survey ranging from higher-end restaurants to local coffee shops around Kuching.  A 30-day survey commenced on September 1st 2018.  Waiters, waitresses and eatery managers were briefed on the protocol of the survey, i.e. paper straws were placed in all drinks and only replaced with a single-use plastic straw when the customer demanded for it.

By the end of September 2018, 17 eateries or 85% of the shops accepted the use of paper straws. From these eateries 22,592 straws were collected. Of these, 10,562 patrons used paper straws throughout their time at the eateries.  Meanwhile, 6,015 rejected paper straws and requested 6,015 plastic straws as replacements. Only three shops declined to finish the surveys due to constant rejection by their customers. The acceptance rate of paper straws was 64%. In other words, not everyone nor all shops will reject the use of paper straws.

The question is this: what is your choice? The next time you head out for a drink with your friends, be discerning and choose an eatery that serves you a paper straw or explains why there is no straw at all. If you want to have a drink at any shop, have a conversation with the server, waiter or waitress and indicate that you want your drink without a straw.  Happily, this request may not be alien to them. And if you’re feeling cheeky, try the following cool line in a suave Bond-like manner….

“I like it shaken, not stirred and without a straw”.

Melvin Gumal received his PhD and MPhil from University of Cambridge and his Bachelor’s degree from University of Melbourne. For the last 30 years, he has been working in conservation. He is the recipient of the 2014 global Whitley Award for Conservation in Ape Habitats and is the head of Wildlife Conservation Society for Malaysia.

Melvin Gumal1,4, Mark Liao,1,2Alcila Abby3, Veni Tan1,2, Abdul Najib1, Marianne Chiam1, Joshua Pandong1, Celine Tiang4 and Christina Yin4. 1. Wildlife Conservation Society; 2. Sarawak Eco-Warriors; 3. Kuching Beach Cleaners;  4. Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus.

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