University of Richmond dining facilities are supporting the campus-wide Rethink Waste sustainability campaign, whose goal is 75 percent waste diversion by 2025, with a small, but meaningful, effort: rethinking single-use plastic straws. 

Currently, Passport Café offers strawless lids, Tyler’s Grill and The Cellar have switched to paper straws, Eight-Fifteen at Boatwright Cafe is transitioning to paper straws and Lou’s continues to offer a one-size non-recyclable plastic straw. 

This change was inspired, in part, by the efforts of GreenUR, a student-led environmental-sustainability club on campus. 

“At the end of last semester, one of the last things we did with GreenUR was send emails to managers at Lou’s, Tyler’s and Eight-Fifteen to ask them if they would go strawless or sell metal, bamboo or reusable straws,” Sophia Tailor, former president of GreenUR, said.  

Customers have noticed the changes, but wonder why they are inconsistent across dining facilities. 

“I was surprised when I went to Passport to get coffee and they didn’t have straws anywhere,” junior Abby Lyons, a Passport Café regular, said. “I know some people that would go out of their way to go to Eight-Fifteen so they wouldn’t have to deal with the awkward lids at Passport, but I wonder why Eight-Fifteen hasn’t gotten rid of their straws, too.” 

Campus lacks a uniform straw practice because the university allows each facility to test different things out, Rob Andrejewski, director of the Office for Sustainability, explained. 

“Each of the dining facilities have different managers and those managers decide what works for their location based on knowing their customers and knowing their products,” Andrejewski said. “The facilities really do have an incredible service ethic and they’re trying to make everyone happy.” 

Making everyone happy is not a simple task when adhering to diverse customer wants and needs. Dining facilities play a delicate balance between environmental sustainability and customer satisfaction. 

“We just recently switched to paper straws but then at the same time, we’ve gotten some requests for plastic straws for the smoothies because it’s incredibly hard to suck something that thick through paper straw and the paper straw will break down quickly,” Lisa Bayard, manager of Tyler’s Grill, said. 

Not only can paper straws be inconvenient, but they can pose a legitimate challenge for some students and faculty members. 

“There are folks who have physical challenges where they need straws and plastic straws are absolutely fantastic,” Andrejewski said. “When trying to be as inclusive as possible as a university, we have to think about everyone.” 

Despite straws not being readily available at some dining locations such as Passport Café, plastic straws can be requested. Reusable stainless steel straws can also now be purchased at Everything Convenience. 

However, if consumers misuse metal straws by throwing them away after a single use, the impact would be worse because metal straws are much more resource-intensive than plastic straws, Andrejewski said.  

“I don’t think that there is a silver-bullet or metal-straw solution that will replace straws as a whole,” Andrejewski said. “Straws are a hot item, but straws don’t account for a lot of our plastic waste. However, to me, they’re a huge symbol of needless waste.” 

Achieving UR’s Rethink Waste campaign goal will require more than simply reducing or eliminating straw usage. The Office for Sustainability has grown its newsletter to approximately 1,200 people, about one-fifth of the campus, to advertise its events and initiatives. In 2017, it conducted an assessment and found that essentially every three days, an environmental event was going on. 

Still, on a campus of students and faculty members with diverse interests and busy schedules, it is difficult to be involved in every issue area.  

“The only reason I’m really aware is because my teammates are very involved with sustainability campaigns,” said Lyons, who plays on the field hockey team. “If I didn’t have them, I don’t think I’d be as aware.”

Environmental initiatives may not be at the forefront of every UR community member's priorities, but those at the root of the efforts hope their peers and colleagues will be receptive. 

“Be open and listen,” Tailor said. “Not everyone has time to be totally invested, but if you have the ability, it would be great if you support your friends and faculty who are really passionate.”

Contact contributor Jeanette Lam at jeanette.lam@richmond.edu.