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Order a guava daiquiri on Colada Shop‘s charming rooftop bar and watch as a bartender fills a Capri Sun-impersonating pouch with pre-mixed ingredients and ice. Behind him there’s a trash can full of the sucked-dry plastic corpses.
It’s befuddling because Juan Coronado, a partner and creative director at Colada Shop, has taken a stand against plastic straws. He told City Paper in December, “Every beverage program I touch, I put my foot down to get rid of the plastic.”
Mario Monte, the Cuban hang-out’s partner and food and beverage director, takes credit for the rooftop drinks. He calls the pouch drinks “Havana Sippers” and says he’s trying to create a tropical atmosphere with a different drinking vibe by serving cocktails in alternative vessels.
There’s also a practical element to it. “There are space limitations,” he says. “These are easy to get rid of. You don’t have to do glassware. For us, we thought Capri Suns are cool. This is becoming a fad.”
When asked on Monday night if the bar recycles or reuses the plastic pouches, a bartender responded: “No we don’t—and you’re not the first person to ask me that.”
“We’ve tried looking for compostable plastic, but it doesn’t exist with this type of vessel,” Monte says. “I’m still putting my feelers out there with paper companies.”
Colada Shop isn’t the only business setting the plastic pouch trend. Calico beverage director Ian Fletcher says he orders them 20,000 at a time because they’re going through 100 to 200 per night at the Blagden Alley bar. He also uses them for off-site events. “It’s easy and you can slap a sticker on it and brand it with whatever,” he says.
Fletcher continues, “It started as a quirky fun delivery method. Most of what we’re doing at Calico is in line with trying to be ultra-efficient. We want to do high volume so there’s lots of pre-batched stuff. Everyone has good memories of Capri Sun pouches.”
Two pouched cocktails are currently on the menu, including one called “The Sassy Kitty,” with Timber Wolf Sassafras Gin, Element Grapefruit Vanilla Shrub, green tea, and honey ($12). “I think we knew they would do well in the beginning, but they’re doing really well,” he says. They even purchased a machine to fill them instead of doing it by hand.
As is the case at Colada Shop, the pouches end up in the garbage. “They’re not recyclable because of the alcohol content,” he explains. “We don’t reuse them. They wouldn’t survive running through a hot washer.”
The gimmicky sippers have even made their way to Nationals Park. “The District Cooler pouches were introduced this season because they are a fun way to hold and carry a cool summer drink,” says a Washington Nationals spokesperson. “They’re an easy, lightweight way to carry a cool drink and the transparent pouch also helps to highlight their bright colors and all of the refreshing ingredients.”
The spokesperson claims the pouches are recyclable, but the National Waste & Recycling Association isn’t so sure. Anne Germain, the vice president of technical and regulatory affairs, explains that contaminants are a major problem in the recycling industry. A contaminant is anything that doesn’t belong, including elements of packaging. “When you have a plastic bottle and it has a plastic wrap around it, that’s considered a contaminant because they’re really just looking for the bottle,” Germain says.
Contamination rates have been skyrocketing over the last few years as people have been more enthusiastically recycling by tossing just about anything into their bins, according to Germain. She calls what consumers are doing “aspirational recycling,” and adds that recycling is a beleaguered industry because of China’s recent decision to no longer accept recycled products from the U.S. and other countries. “If you’re not sure, we prefer you send it into the garbage. We let people relax it too much.”
While she thinks it might be possible to recycle the pouches at grocery stores, which are positioned to accept more products than home recycling bins, she’s not optimistic recycling plants would take them. Since the pouches held a sticky liquid spiked with alcohol, they could be considered contaminated. It’s the same reason you can recycle an untarnished pizza box lid, but not the bottom of a box that’s polka dotted with tomato sauce and cheese.
The pouches therefore make their way into the trash and become an environmental threat.
Tod Hardin, the director of operations and communications for the Plastic Oceans Foundation, says the drink pouch trend has to be nipped in the bud. “These are not a good thing—period,” he says. “The production of this type of beverage packaging is a step in the wrong direction for our oceans and land.”
He wants to remind consumers that there is no “away” for plastic. “Every piece that has ever been produced is still on this planet and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”
Hardin believes the pouches will likely break down into micro-plastics and be ingested by marine animals. Others may make it to landfills and “basically sit for hundreds of years.”
Most environmental experts conservatively estimate that anywhere from eight to 12 million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean per year. “Many, including our organization, believe the actual number is much higher.”