‘Straws Suck’ Campaign Changes Plastic Straw Usage

Thursday, August 23, 2018

A student-led “Straws Suck” advocacy campaign this past spring at Rose-Hulman resulted in a remarkable decline in straw usage on campus, and educated other students along with faculty and staff members about the environmental hazard caused by plastic straws.

One simple plastic straw may not seem like much, but when bundled together straws have become part of a national movement that’s leading to changes in food service operations and helping save the environment.

A student-led “Straws Suck” advocacy campaign this past spring at Rose-Hulman resulted in a remarkable decline in straw usage on campus, and educated other students along with faculty and staff members about the environmental hazard caused by plastic straws.

The result: A 72-percent decline in plastic straw usage in the one campus food service venue and a 55-percent drop in usage in the main student dining hall of the Mussallem Union.

“I wanted to show that small things, even a straw, could add up to something really significant,” says Daniel Ferguson, a 2018 engineering management master’s degree alumnus. “I entered this having no idea about this issue or its importance. Now, I’m conscious about whether or not I’m going to use a straw, and whether I’d rather use a paper, biodegradable or metal straw. And, hopefully, it got others to think a second about their personal decisions.”

Because of their small size, plastic straws are difficult to recycle and have been discarded in large quantities within everyday trash that ends up in landfills, on beaches and in oceans. Plastic straws are harmful to many forms of ocean life, according to engineering management professor Diane Evans, mentor for the project designed for students to practice Six Sigma quality improvement processes. Six Sigma is a statistics-based method developed to reduce defects in manufacturing, health care and education.

“The Six Sigma project provided students with a real-world problem that required a creative solution for the betterment of Rose-Hulman and the world,” says the professor.

Rose-Hulman’s “Straws Suck” campaign coincided with efforts by a growing list of national restaurant chains and businesses to switch from making plastic straws publicly available to customers. Seattle and San Francisco are among communities banning single-use plastic straws, and Starbucks recently announced plans phase out plastic straws worldwide by 2020.

Also following the trend is Bon Appetit Management Company, a food service provider to Rose-Hulman and other colleges, museums and workplaces.

Through Evans’ Six Sigma in Practice course, students conducted a campus study this spring to examine how many plastic straws were being used on a daily and weekly basis at the institute’s dining halls, cafes and restaurants.

Then, the “Straws Suck” campaign included student-inspired tabletops signs and posters throughout campus to make the campus community aware of the environmental hazard posed by plastic straws.

Finally, biodegradable straw alternatives were made available at all campus locations through support from the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network – a national partnership of 37 universities striving to graduate engineers with an entrepreneurial mindset so they can create personal, economic and societal value through a lifetime of meaningful work.

The weekly average plastic straw usage at one campus food service venue dropped from about 361 to 99 straws, while there were notable declines at other locations as well.

“On average, this student project saved a total of 373.17 plastic straws on campus each day from going to the local landfill. Over the course of 16 days within the study, this would have amounted to approximately 5,970 straws,” says Evans.

“Straws Suck” is the latest sustainability project organized by Evans through the Six Sigma in Practice course. A food rescue project in 2016 reduced food waste at Terre Haute’s St. Patrick’s School by examining the number of unopened milk cartons, fruit and pre-packaged foods discarded each day. Inspired by the program, a program at nearby Farrington Grove Elementary School salvaged 15,145 food items during the 2016-17 school year. Evans estimates that the program helped feed more than 3,000 families through the Vigo County School Corporation’s Backpack Program.

“We were surprised that nobody had taken the time to study the impact of food waste in local schools. It’s a significant amount that could be used to help others,” says Elizabeth Beddow, a 2018 chemical engineering graduate.
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