Mountain Brauhaus receives environmental award for eliminating plastic straws

Pictured are Mountain Brauhaus owners Ilka Casey (and her daughter Morgan) and Mark Ruoff (with wife Veronica and daughter Silvia and son August). Also pictured are Samrat Pathania and Iris Marie Bloom of the New Paltz Climate Action Coalition, Betta Broad from New Yorkers for Clean Power and New Paltz High School students Veronica Hill and Tahlia Quintero. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

The Mountain Brauhaus in Gardiner was recently honored for their commitment to eliminating the use of plastic drinking straws in the restaurant. Several dozen people were in attendance on July 11 at the restaurant’s outdoor biergarten as environmental advocate Iris Marie Bloom presented the New Paltz Climate Action Coalition’s “Last Straw Award” to Ilka Casey, co-owner of the Mountain Brauhaus with her brother, Mark Ruoff and their respective spouses, Kevin Casey and Veronica Ruoff. 

Bloom, a member of the coalition and executive director of Protecting Our Waters, said the award was given to the restaurant not only in recognition of their commitment to the environment in eliminating the use of plastic drinking straws but for their efforts to raise public awareness about why they did so.

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Included with the menus at the Mountain Brauhaus, these days, is a separate page with a message to customers explaining the new policy. “Given the fundamental interconnectedness of all things,” it reads, “it will benefit every living thing to reduce this blight on our environment.”

Patrons are encouraged to “skip the straw, save the turtles,” a reference to a widely circulated video that shows a sea turtle undergoing the removal of a plastic drinking straw lodged in its nasal cavity. (The sea turtle expert who extracts the straw thinks the turtle probably swallowed the straw at some point, gagged on it, and then tried to throw it up; the passageways for food and air are connected in a turtle just as they are in people.)

With an estimated 500 million plastic drinking straws discarded every single day in the U.S. alone — never decomposing, but only breaking down into smaller bits that marine animals mistake for food — the turtle’s plight was, sadly, not unique. 

The Brauhaus is providing biodegradable paper straws for kids’ drinks, available to adults upon request. Paper straws cost approximately ten times as much as plastic straws, according to Ilka Casey, but the minimal number of people who have been requesting one since the new policy began at the restaurant is making the option economically possible, she said.

Diners who don’t wish to go without a straw may purchase a reusable stainless steel or bamboo straw from the Mountain Brauhaus for $1.50, which is basically at cost to the restaurant. The bamboo straws are approximately the size and shape of a pencil with two rounded-off ends, and the stainless straws have a permanent bend for easy sipping. The narrow opening to a straw means it has to be cleaned by hand, so the restaurant is also offering tiny-bristled brushes for sale to use at home to keep the straws clean between uses.

Customers have been willing to purchase the straws and use them at the restaurant on subsequent visits, Casey said, with some people even telling her they devised their own carrying case. [A GoFundMe site raised money earlier this year to develop “FinalStraw,” a collapsible, reusable drinking straw that folds up into a compact carrying case.] 

Bloom noted in her remarks at the “Last Straw Award” presentation that, according to the environmental organization Riverkeeper, plastic drinking straws are the most common item they find in shoreline cleanups. But the goal of environmental advocates is to eliminate not only plastic straws, she added, but all single-use plastics across the Hudson Valley. 

“The Marbletown Environmental Conservation Coalition passed the region’s first straw-free resolution in 2016, and the New Paltz Climate Action Coalition is currently drafting legislation to ban all single-use plastics in the Village of Woodstock,” Bloom said. “If the law is adopted there, the next step is to work toward implementing the ban at county and state levels.”

The concept of doing away with plastic straws has come a long way in the last two years; even corporate giant Starbucks jumped onboard last week (reportedly inspired by the sea turtle video). Two years ago this newspaper reported on then-13-year-old New Paltz student Malcolm Condon’s efforts to encourage town and village eateries to stop offering plastic straws, but he encountered skepticism and resistance. This past April, however, a group of the PIGLET students at New Paltz High School — that is, Participation in Government, Literature and Economics for Today’s Students — convinced the town and village boards in New Paltz to pass non-binding resolutions encouraging local restaurants to not give out a plastic drinking straw unless requested by the patron.

Speaking at the Mountain Brauhaus presentation last week, New Paltz Town Supervisor Neil Bettez acknowledged that initially he was dismissive of the plastic straw initiative, but was convinced after examining the facts, giving the high school students credit for “making politicians do the right thing.” Ilka Casey noted that the Mountain Brauhaus had been considering the idea for a while but the high school students made it seem a possibility.

Bloom added that community members can “vote with their dollars” and eat at places like the Brauhaus “to reward them for doing the right thing.”

It’s probably worth noting here that it wasn’t that long ago that recycling our household trash was a new thing. It was 1971 before the first beverage container deposit law in this country was passed (in Oregon) and it was the 1980s before any city mandated household recycling. Residents of Woodbury, New Jersey actually tossed trash on their lawns in protest of the country’s first required curbside pickup program when it began, but they (and everyone else) got used to it, and within three months the City of Woodbury had 85 percent compliance and their recycling program became an example for the rest of the country.

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