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Beyond the News

Colleges replace plastic straws with paper

University Business, July 2018
  • SUSTAINABLE SWAG—A pair of University of Portland students show off two of the 400 stainless steel straws a campus ecology group gave out after the school eliminated the plastic versions.
  • SUSTAINABLE SWAG—A pair of University of Portland students show off two of the 400 stainless steel straws a campus ecology group gave out after the school eliminated the plastic versions.

You might not rank plastic straws up among power plants, gas-guzzling SUVs and Styrofoam containers on the list of big-time environmental boogeymen. Yet the entire country of England, the city of Seattle and several U.S. campuses have targeted the simple drinking straw as a relatively easy way to operate more sustainably.

“People would say, ‘Oh, one straw’s not a big deal,’ but the numbers are fairly staggering, even here at Furman, which is not a big campus,” says Weston Dripps, an associate professor and the executive director of the South Carolina university’s David E. Shi Center for Sustainability.

Furman’s move to replace plastic straws with paper alternatives originated in the 2017-18 academic year with a student group’s environmental studies project. Before then, the university had gone through about 22,000 straws per month—a fraction of the 500 million straws used by Americans every day.

Small switch, big impact

Chico State University in California, Knox College in Illinois and the University of Portland in Oregon stand among the other institutions now stocking their dining facilities with paper straws.

Portland switched to paper straws after associate professor Tara Prestholdt returned from a motorcycle trek to Patagonia. She had seen piles of plastic waste covering beaches and roadsides.

The university’s dining services provider, Bon Appétit Management Company, began testing paper straws to find a product that wouldn’t disintegrate too rapidly when slipped into a beverage, says Steve Kolmes, the university’s environmental studies chair. A student ecology club, with financial asssitance from Bon Appétit, handed out 400 reusable, stainless steel straws.

Students have also launched a petition drive to get a popular off-campus bar to stop using plastic straws, he says. “It’s a little step, but it’s part of a broader movement,” says Kolmes, adding that drink lids could be the next plastic item on the chopping block. Dripps says groups on Furman’s campus are moving to ban plastic shopping bags.

Bon Appetit, meanwhile, will phase out plastic straws companywide by 2019.

Switching to paper also began with students at Knox College, says Deborah Steinberg, the school’s director of sustainability initiatives. She hasn’t heard any backlash, as students don’t take a lot of drinks out of the dining hall.

“It seemed like an easy decision to try this out,” she says. “You feel really empowered when seemingly small switches can really have a great impact on not just the Knox community, but globally as well.”