by Hanisha Lalwani, market assistant PR and marketing manager, UAE Market Organisation, Marriott International.

One restaurant in Bristol in the UK, Brace & Browns, wanted to eliminate a problem. A plastic straw problem. Recently, Brace & Browns tackled this by introducing biodegradable pasta straws to the regular tipple of its patrons. It was this unusual sipping solution to a usual, sucky problem that caught the attention of the BBC. Within just a week, BBC Radio Bristol’s video feature on the restaurant’s unique straw solution garnered 7.9 million views, soliciting it unparalleled global attention without spending any money. Who would have thought that in the very pasta that weight watchers were abandoning lay a biodegradable solution. And an ingenious PR move. Suddenly the customers were pouring into Brace & Browns not because of its drinks but for the now legendary innovative pasta straws.

A 2017 UN report revealed that more than 8 million metric tonnes of plastic end up in oceans each year. It is estimated that Americans alone use 500 million plastic straws daily; so much so that 23 February is observed as National Skip the Straw Day. Straws took on an even more notorious role when a video went viral showing marine biologists removing a plastic straw from the nostrils of the victim: a sea turtle. It took a pained reptile to amplify the media attention on the anti-straw activism.

However, despite the available research studies on how plastic has crept into the bellies of marine life, and even our food chain, the sustainability debate has seen more talk and less action. For far too long brands have been silent and complicit contributors to the growing plastic pollution problem. It is about time they take the plunge in ridding our oceans of non-biodegradable waste.

Many companies are still hesitant to overcome the primary cost hurdle of opting for eco-friendly alternatives to single-use plastic and are simply turning a blind eye to the problem. But a handful of daring others, including Brace & Browns, are seeing tremendous opportunities and long-term benefits, advancing towards not only introducing creative green solutions, but also benefitting PR-wise from cutting through the noise and enjoying first-mover advantages.

Internationally, the Lonely Whale Foundation, co-founded by Entourage star Adrian Grenier, has led the conversation on reducing the use of those unassuming plastic straws with its #StopSucking campaign in an effort geared towards making oceans straw-free. The controversial global fast food behemoth McDonalds ended its ‘sucky’ problem when it recently announced a phasing out of plastic straws across its 1,300 UK outlets as it pilots recyclable paper straws. Just like that, with one environmentally friendly tactic, the Golden Arches was winning favourable editorial space across the very same publications that have never shied away from levelling criticism against fast food chains.

Closer to home, earlier this year several UAE based food outlets including Freedom Pizza and The Noodle House joined in the global #StopSucking conversation when they announced they had gone plastic straw-free. This announcement won them free exposures in widely read publications such as Gulf News. Advancing their mission to go plastic-free, The Noodle House even rewarded its loving patrons, ‘The Noodlers’, with a 50 per cent discount on the food bill for returning unwanted takeaway plastic cutlery at select branches. Did they tick their CSR box? Yes. Did they garner top-of-mind recall value and credibility amongst diners? The answer would be another resounding yes.

In the UAE, such moves towards ditching plastic have largely been facilitated by companies such as Avani Middle East that offers eco-friendly alternatives such as paper straws, wooden cutlery and more. Avani will soon announce a partnership with a large retailer in Dubai to replace plastic bags with their eco-friendly cassava bags (you read it here first). When announced, one can already envision eye-grabbing print headlines such as: “Saving the Earth One Cassava at a Time”.

Ultimately, brands need to find their ‘pasta straw’, which can also double up as their PR Holy Grail. It is no breaking news that customers tend to feel bound to make purchase decisions in favour of brands seen to be doing “the right thing”. So, in today’s highly competitive market, it will be brave brands launching the next pasta straw that will win the hearts, minds and wallets of customers. Brands must look beyond the problem and implement simple, clever solutions – and therein lies the PR potential of a green cause, one that is typically boxed under the banal-sounding ‘CSR initiative’ label. As plastic straw ban initiatives gain momentum, the question is: which brand is leading the conversation and sipping out the massive PR potential?