Straw poll: Western chooses paper over plastic

Western is taking steps in September towards becoming a campus free of plastic straws, even as Starbucks works to eliminate single-use plastic straws from all its locations by 2020.

The push to eliminate plastic straws is an environmentally conscious move for food service providers, an industry that generates significant waste, said Craig Clifford, Residence Operations Manager and Procurement Manager within Hospitality Services.

At Western, plans are underway to introduce paper straws in time for the start of the next academic term.

“We’ve been considering this for well over a year; we’ve been doing our research and many companies are moving to a straw-less, paper straw or biodegradable-straw alternative. And that is what we are looking at,” Clifford said.

Starbucks this week became the largest food-and-beverage company to announce a ban on plastic drinking straws. In June, McDonald’s and A&W restaurants announced they would also test alternatives to plastic straws across their franchises.

Western is taking steps in September towards becoming a campus free of plastic straws, even as Starbucks works to eliminate single-use plastic straws from all its locations by 2020.

While Western’s Hospitality Services does house chain franchises that may need more time to catch up, residences and non-franchised food eateries at Western will offer a paper alternative to the plastic straw, Clifford noted. Three different sizes will be available to accommodate the campus community, with a regular-sized drink straw, a wider option for smoothie-based beverages and a large straw that would be suitable for drinks such as bubble tea. Plastic straws will be available upon request.

“Food services is a big producer of waste. We’ve been looking at what we can do to minimize our footprint on campus, whether it be waste diversion, recycling or local purchasing – straws are fairly new to (these efforts). We are working closely with our marketing team on some education for students and the Western community, and we will continue to work with our franchise partners. Most of them have something in the works that may or may not be ready for September,” Clifford noted.

“It will be a shock to everybody when they come back in September and wonder, ‘Hey where are the straws’ or ‘Where is my plastic straw?’ We will have this paper alternative; it will be a welcome initiative and choice for people because I think everybody is wanting to do the right thing. You just have to make it easy for them.”

Some have already expressed concerns. There are people who require a straw for accessibility, while some choose to drink only with straws because of concerns about sanitation.

Those worried about a paper straw disintegrating if left to sit too long in a drink should rest easy; the alternative-to-plastic that will be available on campus has been tested and found to remain intact if left in a beverage for 18-24 hours, Clifford said. Hospitality Services is also looking into a type of straw made of a biodegradable, food-grade material.

Plastic straws have become – much like the plastic bag – an environmental bête noire, added Mark Cleveland, Dancap Private Equity Professor in Consumer Behavior at Western.

Locally, even globally, their elimination might not make a huge difference but they are, in some ways, a proxy for bigger-picture environmental awareness.

Concerns about sustainability and eco-conscious consumer behaviour are especially prevalent among the demographic that frequents Starbucks, Cleveland said.

“If you think about Starbucks customers, they’re mostly millennials and Generation X-ers,” he said, adding this demographic has has grown with concerns of sustainability ‘drilled’ in.

“We are starting to see the effects of climate change and environmental degradation. If your core customers are concerned – we call them eco-centric – about the ecological impact of their consumption behaviours, it only makes sense for Starbucks to engage in these types of initiatives, for image impression management, to be seen as progressive, to build good will among their customers and also to position their company as being environmentally responsible,” Cleveland explained.

The move to eliminate plastic straws is a minor, superficial, but highly visible change for businesses, he continued. It’s a smart move for businesses that consumers are looking at as leaders. And it will take more than the average consumer to make a positive impact.

“Consumers are thinking what they can do on a daily basis. The research I do is looking at how people might be internally motivated to be environmentally responsible but changes will come from powerful others in society, and that includes companies and governments. It’s not enough for consumers to be pro-environmental, because if I am doing it and nobody else is doing it, it’s not going to have an impact whatsoever.”

In marketing, however, consumer perception is everything, he stressed. One possible option to curb the use of, and dependency on, plastic straws is to start charging for them, just as retailers started to charge consumers for plastic bags. In other words, turn a convenience into an inconvenience.

“I would recommend, put a levy on plastic straws. When they introduced the 5-to-10-cent price on bags – and that’s voluntary as far as I know – the amount of usage went down about 90 per cent. If you either charged 20 cents a straw, or consumers could buy a straw that could be recycled, I know that’s not very practical, but we will see,” Cleveland said.

The real challenge, he noted, is addressing a disconnect between consumers’ expressed preferences for sustainability, and their actual shopping behaviours.

“Everybody cares about the environment, but then, we don’t put our money where our mouth is. Green alternatives and green products out there really haven’t been successful in the marketplace because people are not willing to pay more; people are not willing to give up convenience; but also, the physical environment we have built for ourselves is not well-designed to be a green consumer.”