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Proposed straw ban gets mixed reception in Schenectady

Proposed straw ban gets mixed reception in Schenectady

Businesses split over proposal
Proposed straw ban gets mixed reception in Schenectady
Shelby Somelofske, Natasha Cotrupi and owner Nicole Pardi pose before a rack of bamboo straws available for purchase at Raw.
Photographer: Pete DeMola / Gazette Reporter

SCHENECTADY — A push for the city to stop sucking — through plastic straws, that is — remains stalled in City Hall. 

The proposed ban failed to make it out of committee on Monday because city lawmakers are seeking additional feedback from the food and beverage industry. 

Just three people spoke at a previous public hearing. 

However, interviews with business owners reveal a mixed reception.

The City Council has been debating the measure just steps from the Jay Street Pub, which is located across from City Hall.

Owner Mitch Ramsey said he is mindful of the environment and utilizes best practices in order to reduce waste. 

Staff first ask customers if they prefer a straw, and the bar has slashed food costs by half by asking customers if they want specific garnishes, like lemons or limes, for instance.

Ramsey not only expressed concerns that a switch to paper straws would be more expensive, but also feared a ban would not be cost-effective nor an appropriate way to cull waste. 

“A complete and total ban would cost more money," Ramsey said.

Businesses who have converted to biodegradable straws acknowledge they are more expensive. 

But, said Raw owner Nicole Pardi, “It wasn’t crazy enough for me to not do it."

For the juice bar, thinking green is part of its core brand: It also uses recycled plastic cups and lids and sells reusable bamboo straws.

Nearby, Happy Cappuccino offers customers a choice between paper straws and a biodegradable plastic model. 

Customers are generally supportive. However, the paper straws can disintegrate, posing a problem for leisurely sippers.

“Unless you drink fast, paper straws are going to deteriorate,” said barista Chelsea Heilmann.

Ambition Coffee and Eatery, which endorsed the ban following its rollout in April, is in the process of converting all takeout materials to be environmentally-friendly.

“We’re almost 100 percent converted to ecological to-go utensils,” said manager Secora Kohinke. “People are happy and excited that we’re taking a step in the right direction.”

Under a ban, restaurants would be required to provide biodegradable straws or forego them entirely. 

Since Ambition switched to paper straws, Kohinke has noticed a broader shift in customer habits. 

More people are ordering to-go drinks without lids or straws. 

“We definitely use less and it's definitely helping get rid of (straws) altogether,” she said.

Slidin’ Dirty was also an early adopter and selected its current straw model through trial and error. 

The previous brand of paper straws fell apart too quickly, said Tyler Court, who added patrons are generally supportive of its policy.

“We get, ‘I really like that’ or ‘Don’t give me a straw next time,’” she said.

Other businesses said it was unlikely they could do away with straws entirely following a ban. 

At Nico’s Pizza, fountain drinks have always been popular, and orders have shot into the stratosphere following the launch of a new daily lunch special.

“Straws are very, very important here,” said manager Charles Lynch. “Having fountain drinks is important for a lot of people. It’s cheaper for us to sell, and people get a lot of it.

“We’ll buy the new straws if we have to.”

Similarly, slushies are a popular item at Mont Pleasant Big Apple Deli & Grocery.

“Some people will be upset,” said employee Redwan Alsharai, who acknowledged customers may warm to the idea after being informed of a new law.

Others dismissed the ban as unnecessary, including Frederick Bishunath. 

He motioned towards a plastic straw holder at his daughter’s restaurant, Tiffany’s West Indian Restaurant on State Street, and dismissed the proposed ban as “nonsense.” 

“We pay so much in taxes for our homes and businesses,” Bishunath said.

Quality-of-life issues are chronic at the corner of State and Elder streets, he said, including people openly smoking crack outside and causing problems.

“They need to focus more on businesses around here and to protect them,” Bishunath said. “That’s the sad part about Schenectady.”

City councilmembers said they want Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation (DSIC) to design a survey to in order to glean more public input.

DSIC Executive Director Jim Salengo said on Tuesday he hasn’t yet been contracted by lawmakers, but would be happy to send materials to downtown restaurant owners to gather feedback.

Lawmakers also wanted to discuss a potential partnership with Schenectady County.

A county spokesman said on Wednesday they haven’t yet been contacted by anyone from the city, and lawmakers have not discussed a similar ban at the county level.

“It’s not something that has come up in the Legislature that we’re aware of,” said Joe McQueen.

Correction 12:00 p.m. 7/18: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Secora Kohinke's name. The spelling has been corrected.

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