In need of some caffeine to help her through classes, student Olivia Fernandez orders an iced coffee from Common Grounds inside the Bell Memorial Union. After stirring in some creamer, the philosophy major snaps the lid onto the top of the drink and inserts a plastic straw—for probably the last time, at least at Chico State.
Starting April 23, the University will become the first California State University campus to eliminate plastic straws. Alternatives will be available and encouraged, while embracing an educational model about the impact of single-use plastics.
There may not be a more ubiquitous single-use item in our culture than a plastic straw, explain the proponents of this change. From iced coffee drinks and cups of soda to waters, smoothies and cocktails, if we’re about to drink it, we’ll probably use a straw to do it.
Toss a plastic straw into the trash, and it’ll eventually sit in the landfill for hundreds of years. Place it in recycling, and it’ll still end up in the landfill because it’s made from a type of polypropylene plastic that recycling programs won’t accept.
“A straw that you use for less than 10 minutes is here for 200 years,” said Corinne Knapp, associate dining director of Associated Students Dining Services. “Something we just use and throw away, we took resources from this earth for 10 minutes of use, sometimes even less.”
AS Dining Services controls and maintains dining sites across campus, including three convenience stores (Butte Station, Holt Station, and Urban Roots), two coffee shops (Common Grounds and Selvester’s Café-by-the-Creek), and the restaurants in the BMU Marketplace, as well as residential dining in Sutter Hall. Between all of them, 130,000 plastic straws are used every academic year.
The hope is this change will make a dent, however small, in the 500 million plastic straws used (and discarded) in this country daily.
Every year Knapp listens to suggestions from sustainability-minded students, particularly the elected AS sustainability officer, of how to cut waste, improve environmentally conscious practices, and reduce the carbon footprint at various campus locations. Last year, the elimination of plastic straws was suggested.
“We try to work with those students to try to achieve those ideas that are feasible,” Knapp said. “And when this one came up, it was like, ‘Yeah, I think we can do that.’”
Right around that time, a Chico-based group of environmentally minded citizens, led by Linda Storey (Art, ’85), owner of Hula’s Chinese Bar-B-Q, was leading the charge for local restaurants to go strawless. Looking to hit the campus population, the group reached out to the University’s associate dining director Elaine Kramer, who saw this as a wonderful opportunity to honor Chico State’s core value of sustainability.
“The timing was perfect,” Kramer said.
With its built-in audience of dining service consumers, AS Dining seized the opportunity to make any effort of eliminating plastic straws on campus its own, and it came up with alternatives. While anyone can use their reusable drink containers for coffee or soft drinks (along with a 20-cent discount), paper straws coated with beeswax (for added durability) will also be available upon request.
Additionally, stainless steel straw kits (including straw, cleaning brush, and sticker) will be available at multiple points of sale across campus beginning April 23 for $1.25 each. By offering alternatives, instead of banning straws altogether, they hope to best serve their customers while still making a difference, Knapp said.
Dining Services marketing coordinator Joelle Cabasa (Journalism, ‘14) points out the change also has an education opportunity.
“We’re also an educational institution, and when you’re talking about trying to convince the population of the student body about being strawless, why, and what’s important about it, you have to talk about the environmental impact of [straws],” she said.
University supporters are also utilizing online advocacy to help people make the change and to illustrate the impact of straws that don’t make it to the landfill.
For example, according to the Strawless Challenge website, if the consumption rate of plastic straws continues, by the year 2050, pieces of plastic in the ocean will outnumber the number of fish. Ocean Conservancy reports that straws are among the top 10 cleaned-up items on beaches.
“A single straw from a single person is negligible, or at least they think it is,” Cabasa said. “Little do they know that it doesn’t biodegrade and it stays in the ocean.”
The next time anyone buys an iced coffee drink at Chico State after April 23, they’ll have to make a decision: reusable cup, paper straw, stainless steel straw, or no straw. Either way, Fernandez said she won’t see the change as much of an inconvenience for her.
“I usually don’t give it much thought,” Fernandez said, “but I will now.”
Kramer hopes the awareness created around the strawless campaign will lead to positive action away from campus.
“I think this is a great place to start, I’m hoping this will progress,” she said. “We’ll start at straws and hopefully someday we get all the way to the cup.”
AS will table inside the BMU on April 23 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. where visitors can sign a pledge to stop using plastic straws, learn more about going strawless, and enter to win prizes. You can also visit the Strawless Challenge website for more information.