"I don’t know how many times I’d come to open the bar and there were just tons of plastic straws on the floor, or on the patio,” says Brandee Boyle, owner of Sassafras. Her Oak Forest bar, known for its killer sangria, Patrick Swayze art, and laidback regulars, lately has become known for something else entirely: ditching plastic straws.

Sassafras—along with its sister bars Big Star and Grand Prize and two other Houston watering holes, OKRA and Catbirds—is part of a pilot program run by the Houston Zoo’s conservation team, whose goal is to curb the city’s plastic-waste output and protect our local sea turtles.

Stories about plastic-straw bans—in cities such as Seattle and Oakland, at corporations including Starbucks and The Marriott—are suddenly ubiquitous, with people around the country now hip to the 9 million metric tons of plastic straws, and 150 million metric tons of other plastics, in the world’s oceans, including the Gulf.

It’s something the folks at the Houston Zoo have long known. Over the past two decades, professionals there have treated around 100 stranded sea turtles annually. The animals—suffering entanglement injuries caused by plastic strings, fishing lines, even tennis shoes—often need surgery, extractions, and medication before being released back into the wild. Straws and other plastics can affect them, too. The situation is gruesome and disheartening, and has inspired some major changes at the zoo itself.

Brandee Boyle of Sassafras

Image: Amy Kinkead

We began bringing the food-service and gift-shop staff in to see the turtles, to see directly what’s happening,” explains Senior Director of Wildlife Conservation Renee Bumpus. “Our gift shop owner, Nancy Gonzales, started seeing these sea turtles and she was like, ‘Nope. We can’t do plastic bags. We have to move on from this.’” 

Gonzalez stopped using plastic bags in the gift shop in 2015. Her reusable This Bag Saved a Sea Turtle totes are now hugely popular with visitors. Last year the zoo stopped selling single-use plastic water bottles, too—you can bring your own to fill or purchase a recyclable carton.

As of this year, the zoo’s own dining facilities finally have stopped offering plastic straws—they’d been going through an estimated 23,000 a year—with its conservation team launching its initiative to help local bars do the same. It was in April that Bumpus invited the owners of Sassafras and the other pilot participants to learn more about sea turtles and to collaborate on an official certification process for going straw-free. The program will likely add more participants within the next year.

For now, the five bars are each stocking paper straws and awaiting sea turtle stickers for their windows and doors that will alert patrons to the fact that they’re Houston Zoo Certified Plastic Free. But Big Star has already made its own signs—Straws are dumb. We like turtles.—and Sassafras has followed suit with a note to customers about why it has done away with plastic straws.

“Sometimes people get confused,” says Boyle, “but I haven’t had anyone get angry.” Mostly, they don’t notice much of a difference. She still asks her guests if they’d care for a straw, but it’s a paper one printed with a friendly reminder: just rows upon rows of sea turtles swimming on by. 

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