The Last Straw

They’re calling it Strawpocalypse as more and more cities, states, and countries ban plastic straws and identify alternatives. You have to give it to the #StopSucking, #BreakFreeFromPlastic, and Lonely Whale’s For A Strawless campaigns, 2018 was the year of the paper straw. For two huge food service providers of student unions, Bon Appetit and Chartwells, that meant identifying new products that would please hundreds of thousands of college students. 

Bon Appetit said it will be done phasing out all plastic straws by September, and Chartwells is finding alternatives for any campus clients who make the request. And for the many unions and dining divisions that haven’t had the benefit of having a mega-food service provider doing the research for them, finding the right paper straw, if a paper straw at all, has become daunting. 

“Quite honestly, there are not a lot of manufacturers producing paper straws at this time,” said Tom Coleman, director of retail dining at Purdue University. “I will tell you that during my last visit to the national restaurant show held annually in Chicago I found very few, if any, sources for paper straws.” 

Purdue had estimated the campus was going through 650,000 plastic straws annually and completed the transition to all paper straws in March, following through on one of the school’s sesquicentennial themes, “Giant Leaps Toward a Sustainable Economy and Planet.” The effort started in late 2017 when Purdue Dining & Catering partnered with student organizations on a “Make This Your Final Straw” campaign. 

“The decision really came down to our desire to move from plastic to paper, and with all the other plastics we absorb, this by far looked to be the easiest to accomplish with very little impact on the consumer,” Coleman said. “Based on what we heard and what we are hearing today from our students, it was a
good decision.” 

Like other campuses, Purdue had to plan ahead to implement paper straws, but not in order to prepare students. Rather, it took seven months for only a portion of their first paper straw order to be filled. That’s primarily because Purdue chose Aardvark Straws, the only paper straw made in the United States, and in this case, not that far from Purdue in Fort Wayne, Indiana. 

Aardvark uses layers of special paper made from sustainably grown trees and a food grade adhesive to make its straws, which have been tested to show some of the best strengths and use times in cold beverages. After seeing its business grow by 100% and 200% a year, it’s now growing 5,000% each year. 

The University of Miami recently moved from plastic to PLA straws, which are made from polylactic acid created from food production byproducts that come from natural agriculture fibers like sugar cane, wheat, and miscanthus. Although it breaks down slowly, it is biodegradable and compostable, and has been used for years in such things as medical implants that need to gradually degrade, disposable tableware, nonwoven fabrics, and
food packaging. 

Chartwells said it chose the PLA straws made by Emerald brand for the University of Miami because it met sustainability and user needs. 

“We chose compostable simply because that will sufficiently meet the needs of campuses that do offer composting, and, because the straws are paper-based, even if they go to the landfill, they are a far more biodegradable choice than plastic,” said Meredith Rosenberg, director of brand voice and digital strategy for Chartwells Higher Ed. 

And then there is research that is starting to show there may not be a need for straws at all in the future. 


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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