SOME THINGS ABOUT A NEW SCHOOL YEAR JUST DON’T CHANGE, particularly when it comes to Oregon State University (OSU) students fueling up with a cold, likely caffeinated, drink. However, they may have noticed a new addition to the school year in the form of a slight accessory change to their cold drink: a paper straw. The movement to remove plastic straws from the campus-affiliated dining locations, titled “The Last Dam Straw” (because there can never be too many beaver puns at the university with a beaver mascot), was implemented starting the 2018-19 academic school year boosting the school’s sustainability kudo points. Now OSU has something else to add to their well-known sustainability culture on top of their reusable orange take-out containers.
Katy Nalven, a master’s candidate in Marine Resource Management, was one of those involved with the push to get plastic straws removed from campus-affiliated locations. For her, it started with a class project where the assignment was an outreach piece. Katy and her group wanted to see something a little different from other group’s; they wanted to see something more relatable and tangible for those on campus. After the project she and her group approached the school in hopes for a potential collaboration with the university and education point for university-goers. Turns out that the school was already planning on replacing plastic straws with paper ones.
“We wondered how hard it would be for OSU to switch plastic straws to paper or a straws only upon request and with that we started talking to University Hall and Dining Services and it turns out they were actually already considering making that switch. We were like the final straw to get OSU to switch.”
In addition to improving their assignment via getting feedback from fellow classmates, “We also really want to focus in on the language that would appeal to students.” Their project coincidentally had the same title as the movement now. “We wondered if the kids would actually like [the title] because the dam jokes are so overused but turns out they really did. They were super into it so we kept it.”
“We wanted to make sure that we had language that was one, appealing to the group that we were targeting, which is OSU undergrads, and we also wanted to make sure that they were getting the information that they want.”
A challenge that she came across for her outreach project was language. “If you’re going to talk to somebody about an environmental issue you need to know where to start with them.” How does one gauge people’s knowledge of their plastic straw understanding and does it work effectively?
ANTI-SINGLE-USE PLASTIC is a new language that people are learning and it’s taking the internet and real life by storm. It is rooted in the consumerist culture and is gradually spoken all around the world. Although it wouldn’t be spoken at nauseam until half a century later, it showed up on environmental radars in the 1970’s when the impact of plastic on the environment was present but fairly unknown.
Ex-straw, as mentioned in the title, is an impromptu term I’ve given for this movement of going beyond plastic straws and is also gaining momentum around the world through the anti-single-use plastic language. After a video with a turtle getting a straw removed from its nostril went viral on the internet, it all of a sudden became apparent that single-use plastics were the bane of oceanic and environmental existence. But the impacts of plastic on the ocean weren’t new—plastics were being found in the ocean as early as the 1970s—what was new was people all over the world seeing what the impact looked like with the internet serving as a catalyst and tool.
There is not a one-size-fits-all way to gauge what people know about plastic– that’s where language comes in play. At the start of the school year the Memorial Union Retail and Food Services posted a picture on their social media account. It read, “This year, starting Fall 2018, all nine MURFS locations are replacing all plastic straws with compostable paper straws. Our hope is that we reduce single use plastic, and ultimately waste on campus!!” (Double exclamation points theirs.) The message that was conveyed here was plastic straws would be replaced with paper straws and the desire to decrease plastic usage will prevail. Signs were also placed at the campus locations in case anyone who wasn’t scrolling through social media was curious why a paper straw came with their drink.
Shirley Wong is a third year Electrical and Computer Engineering student who is aware of the school’s move to paper straws. “They make a really distinctive squeak against
plastic lids,” as she describes an iconic trait of the newest accessory. “I think [the paper straw switch] does make me consider my position as a consumer a little more but not much aside from that. At the end of the day, I have more immediate issues in my everyday life to put my energy towards.”
I asked, “Does [the paper straw movement] influence your other life choices revolving around plastic?” She replied, “I think the act of answering these questions may have been a strong influence– I’ll try to opt for no straw more often. My younger sister is really passionate about the environment and she heavily insists that my family should all get reusable straws.”
If you didn’t catch it, the language I had in my question could have been interpreted with guilt which can then elicit a guilty response. All across the media there is anti-single-use plastic language that revolves around the consumer as the one responsible for the earth’s demise. This is manipulative language that can be effective but can also bring up ethics as to whether people should be guilt-tripped. Perhaps the language doesn’t intend to guilt but rather inform people of the hazards that come with plastic straws and other single-use items.
SO WHERE WILL THIS EX-STRAW MOVEMENT TAKE US? “We want to make this permanent. We want OSU to make a formal claim that OSU consciously has plastic pollution on their mind,” Katy says as she looks toward the future in OSU’s sustainable movements.
As much as I want to try out this paper straw fad (you can’t deny the language used seems so appealing; read: “Look at our new paper straws! Wouldn’t you like to try them out?”), it just doesn’t make sense to me order a drink that comes with a straw when I can just drink from the side of the cup. And note that I only order drinks on campus if I have a reusable cup because goodness forbid I use a disposable plastic cup and lid to fit my paper straw. I do own a metal straw that I got it as a gift, but I hardly even really use it. If I order a cocktail and it comes with a straw or two, I reluctantly use them feeling guilty that they would go to waste if I didn’t at least touch them. But when making a conscious effort to remember if and when I use straws, it’s once in a blue moon. Especially since most of the drinks I order are hot drinks after coming to Oregon from Southern California. (I’m perpetually cold except for the three months in summer when it’s a humid sort of hot that sticks around.)
I suppose the paper straw fad leaves room for improvement; if the anti-single-use plastic language is here to stay and really does make an impact, I would expect to see some improvement on the disposable cups and lids that are still distributed across campus drink-distributing locations. (Because advertising the sustainability in reducing straws somehow masks the fact that single-use materials are still being used.)
But even as an ocean-lover who is very aware of the ocean plastic situation, I still find it difficult for me to be prepared with my reusable straw. When I do remember to bring it, I make sure to bring it when I make plans to go to McMenamin’s to enjoy a Ruby milkshake—a fantastic blend of their Ruby Ale and ice cream—because I will go through the hassle of cleaning out the raspberry seeds left inside the straw. It’s really not that bad. What’s more concerning is the lack of understanding of this anti-single-use plastic language by people around campus and even the world. I’m not sure there’s a way to communicate to and reach everyone as to how important this topic is and that’s what really sucks.