Suck it Up: Laurier’s Sustainable take on straws and plastics

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“I’m sure you’ve seen the video of the sea turtle that gets a straw stuck in its nose and it’s just so sad.”

Jenna Steadman, a recent Laurier graduate who convocated in June, explained to me her reasoning for cutting plastic straws out of her life. Like most of us who have ditched the old devices, her reasoning for the decision is very clear: plastic pollution is killing our oceans and the creatures in them.

Steadman is not alone in her environmental efforts. Cutting plastic straws out of daily use has become a common plight among those who are concerned about single use plastics and, especially, their affects on ocean life.

McDonald’s in the United Kingdom recently announced their attempts to remove straws. Seattle, New York, Vancouver and other coastal metropolitan centres have called for, occasionally successfully, city-wide bans. The food and hospitality sectors are quietly eliminating them too.

But what’s happening right here at Laurier?

Here at home, you’ve probably noticed that your drink at Wilf’s has started coming plastic-free. Unless you order a thick drink like a milkshake or smoothie, straws no longer come with beverages — you have to ask if you want one.

“We looked at [removing straws] as a quick and easy change that we could make that would sort of help us reduce those single use plastics very quickly with very minimal training and very little … operational changes for us,” said Andrew Neilson, hospitality business manager at Laurier.

And that seems to be just how easy it was to make the change, both on an operational level and for consumers to adapt to. If you noticed the change at all, you likely weren’t all that bothered by it.

“We don’t get a lot of feedback other than when people will request [the straws],” Neilson said. “Most of the time, people don’t comment. Because it’s not an automatic thing on the table with their drink, they will just drink their drink.”

Looking around Wilf’s, it’s easy to see that the majority of people are not requesting straws, as they are just drinking from their cups. That, in itself, should be a pretty clear indicator. The lack of feedback on the issue at Wilf’s could point to many things, but I think the most logical conclusion is just that people don’t notice or care when a straw is missing.

Most of us don’t use straws in our own home, with hot beverages or with reusable containers. We only use them when they’re given to us when we’re out and about. When they’re not automatic, we adapt.

It’s a convenience that’s convenient for 20 minutes until it spends over a 100 years floating in the ocean — unless it ends up in the nose of a sea turtle or the belly of a whale before that.

Not everyone is so keen to have plastic straws banned, however. People with disabilities, their friends and family and their support groups are concerned because some people cannot drink without strong straws. In particular, the Disability Alliance of British Columbia has been one of the main loud voices against the proposed plastic straw ban in Vancouver.

At least for now, there’s no outright ban planned at Laurier or in the greater Kitchener-Waterloo area, but straws are becoming harder to come by as businesses are choosing to remove them as options for customers.

“They’ll just politely ask for it and where we’ll still provide a straw,” Neilson stated, referring to people who need or want straws in Wilf’s. Furthermore, Wilf’s management is looking into more sustainable options, such as paper straws, for September and beyond to help strike a balance between accessibility and sustainability.

At Wilf’s, that’s an easy issue to get around — provide when asked. However, outright bans, such as those being implemented and argued around the world, provide little answers for the complex, ethical questions surrounding these small plastic tubes. It still seems to be a while before we will have a strong verdict as to the right thing to do in these situations and for these people.

In the meantime, I think we can all agree on a few things. Firstly, plastic is harming our oceans. Secondly, we as humans are the ones causing these issues. Finally, we have to do something about it.

So what other single-use plastic is missing at Laurier?

 

Have you noticed that you can’t buy a bottled filtered water at any venue on campus?

“If there is spring water being sold in plastic bottles, let us know because that shouldn’t be happening,” said Tyler Plante, outreach and program coordinator for the Sustainability Office at Laurier. The Sustainability Office provides opportunities for both social and environmental sustainability at all campuses and into the greater communities in both academic and non-academic pursuits.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that you have to be parched in that particularly dry three-hour lecture. “To facilitate that elimination of plastic water bottles, we’ve installed close to 40 water filter stations across campus,” Plante explained.

All you need to do is to bring your own container and hold them over any of the stations installed across campus. Reusable water bottles aren’t hard to come by on campus either — they come in O-Week kits and I’ve been using my Eco-Hawks branded bottle since my second year.

If you’ve seen or used any of the refill stations around campus, you’ve probably noticed that the stations keep track of how many plastic water bottles each unit has saved by the volume of water it has distributed. With countless members of the community passing through campus, especially on hot days like we’re experiencing this summer, that can account for a lot of water.

“As of last summer, so it’s probably a lot higher now, we’ve had over 1.25 million water bottles saved since 2014,” Plante said.

After my interview with Plante and on my way to my next meeting, I checked the first refill station I saw for its number of saved plastic bottles out of curiosity for its impact in its four-year lifespan. Sure enough, the station outside of Arts 1E1, which is admittedly not in an obvious location, has saved over 100,000 bottles alone so far.

I’m sure the refill stations in more travelled areas, such as the library, Bricker Academic and the Concourse, would have even more impressive numbers, and those are just a handful of the places on campus to get your fill for free and simultaneously save on plastic.

Beyond the refill stations, the Sustainability Office is looking into initiatives to reduce the waste of single-use coffee cups on campus. The details of these efforts are not yet available, but it sounds like there is going to be something environmentally exciting coming in the fall semester.

“Look for something this fall, likely during waste reduction week, which is the week after reading week in October,” Plante encouraged when talking about the coffee cups on campus.

While we’re all waiting for this announcement, there’s still plenty each of us can do to reduce our hot-drink waste as well. Steadman suggests easy changes like bringing your own mug, and buying a reusable straw to bring with you wherever you go instead of always using single-use straws.

“Honestly, they’re so small. They’re the size of a pen, so you can just stick it in your purse or your backpack,” she said.

If you’re into that idea, there’s some good news coming for you as well. Though the logistics are still being worked out, this should be a big step for Laurier’s consumption habits.

“This year, I think we’ll be going ahead with the purchase of metal straws. So we’ll be giving out straws at O-Week during the Get Involved Fair,” Plante said.

Furthermore, the Sustainability Office is looking into giving away 100 per cent recycled, Laurier branded tote bags for O-Week, as well as having both new products available throughout the year.

Both Plante and Neilson encouraged the use of the Laurier eco-container program. This is a one-time payment to get full use of the system, which provides students and staff the opportunity to use a hard takeout container that can be reused countless times.

“We have a very good relationship with food services, and we’re looking at how we can reduce packaging waste,” Plante said. “Instead of getting a plastic clamshell for your takeout food, you can hand in your card, get a reusable 100 per cent recycled container that you can take your takeout food with, and then you bring it back when you’re done and you get your card back. You do that recycling over and over and over again.”

Just breaking down the logistics of the system, it’s more economically logical to buy an eco-container once than dozens of takeaway containers. If you are paying for take-out at Wilf’s every time you go, your $5 surcharge for the reusable alternative will more than likely pay for itself within the semester. Even better, if you’re going into first-year this year, you’ll be provided a card for free.

That’s getting more and more popular, according to Plante. Last year was the most successful one yet for the program, showing that people do care about their waste, whether for the reason of their wallet or the environment.

“[The mentality] does seem to be sort of shifting and that’s good when you think about the amount of straws, cutlery, napkins, everything like that,” Neilson said.

He stated that he’s happy to see these changes from the biggest companies like McDonalds and Disney to the smaller scale local companies, as well.

Though Plante can’t yet confirm the details of any other changes and initiatives coming in the next year, there are some other exciting things that the Sustainability Office has planned to combat single use plastics and waste in general, including working with the book stores on both Waterloo and Brantford campuses to remove or reduce plastic bags.

Furthermore, there will be a “free store” for off-campus housing where you can pick up the discarded items from the students who will move out in August, all for free. The logistics are still being worked out, but if you’re really missing a toaster or a dish set, this is a perfect opportunity to reuse and rehome a perfectly good item that would otherwise end up in the landfill.

And if you, the student, see a gap in the sustainability initiatives at Laurier? There’s a fund for you to pitch your ideas and solutions to the problems that you see in the community. That’s something that has launched businesses in the past and encouraged the changes that we may take for granted now.

“I would encourage students that if they have an idea, specifically around plastics or waste reduction, or anything really tied to sustainability, environmental or social sustainability, we want to support that and to provide mentorship and financial support to get those ideas,” Plante said.

Applications will open in September and will be open until around reading week.

As for Wilf’s, the next steps in eliminating single use plastics seems to be in the takeout department. Though nothing is confirmed yet, they’re currently looking into more sustainable takeout bags and cutlery.

“If that one industry can shift and downgrade and move to alternatives that are better in general, that’ll just be a huge impact right off the bat,” Neilson said.

Your dollar is the biggest indicator here. It’s easy enough to request your drink without a straw or write strongly worded emails to managers, but beyond that there’s not a lot that us full-time students can do to impact the food industry at large.

What we can do, however, is to make conscious choices every day to use less unnecessary plastic and to think as selflessly as we can when it comes to our waste. Of course, this won’t rock the world, but it will add up over time.

“At least I won’t feel as guilty. I’m still guilty of doing it as much as the next person, but maybe a little less — and, honestly, if everyone just did a little less there would be so much less,”

Steadman said.

With so many plastics around us, it’s near impossible to cut them out of our lives entirely. By doing what is comfortable for you — bringing a reusable water bottle, cutting out straws, buying glass bottles instead of plastic — we can each contribute to a cleaner and more sustainable environment.

In short, if you don’t use straws at home, you probably don’t need one in a restaurant. So, as they say, suck it up.

If nothing else, watch that sad video of the sea turtle one more time. Watch Finding Nemo or Finding Dory, Moana or even The Little Mermaid. Look at the beauty of the oceans we want to remember and we want to see when we go on our Caribbean vacations and consider if it’s morally worth that single-use straw.

If we want to keep our oceans from becoming even more of a landfill, our actions and choices are the only things that can make a difference. Our sea life depends on us — is that twenty minutes with a straw really worth it?

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