The Straw That Broke the Cafeteria’s Back
By Melissa Grieco
Rye Garden Club Conservation Committee
When hungry Rye City School District students line up for their first back-to-school meal on September 4th, there will be one formerly ubiquitous accessory missing from their cafeteria lunch trays: the plastic straw. Thanks to an exciting new practice that is going into effect this school year, students at all five City schools will be sipping their beverages straw-free.
Much like the anti-plastic bag movement from the last decade, straw laws, bans, and other initiatives aimed at reducing the widespread pollution caused by plastic straws have exploded over the last year. Plastic straws are problematic because they are too small to be recycled and their flimsiness makes them prone to becoming airborne and ending up in waterways and oceans. It is estimated that Americans use and discard over 500 million straws per day, enough to wrap around the Earth 2.5 times! They are among the top ten most commonly found pieces of litter on beaches and in the ocean where they kill and maim countless marine species and sea birds.
Since the video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw painfully lodged in its nostril went viral, many cities, including Miami Beach, San Francisco, Seattle, and Malibu, have passed outright bans on plastic straws and other single-use utensils. Here at home, the Rye Sustainability Committee launched its own straw campaign in early 2018 dubbed “Sound Shore Last Straw”. The locally-based initiative asks area food & beverage establishments to pledge to only provide plastic straws upon specific customer request, and/or switch to paper straws, or discontinue using straws altogether. So far, “Sound Shore Last Straw” has been a great success with eleven Rye restaurants, private clubs, and other entities currently participating in the initiative with more joining on every week.
As media headlines covering the detrimental effects of plastic straws proliferated this past spring, along with the rise of grassroots efforts such as “Sound Shore Last Straw” aimed at curbing their use, Dr. Eric Byrne, Superintendent of Rye City Schools, and his colleagues deliberated over how Rye schools could proactively contribute. Around the same time, Dr. Byrne was approached by members of the community, Rye Sustainability, and District Wellness Committee about the issue of plastic straws and what our schools could do about it. Simultaneously, Chartwells, the food service provider, announced during its end-of-year presentation that it was looking to eliminate plastic straws in school cafeterias throughout the district. All signs were pointing in the same direction, and it was decided that Rye City Schools would terminate their use.
It has yet to be determined whether paper straws will be purchased and provided in lieu of plastic, but as of now the cafeterias that serve all 3,500 Rye City School District students will be operating on a straw-free basis. The one exception will be the plastic straws that come pre-attached to food & beverage items such as milk and juice boxes.
Sally Mitchell, Rye High School Chemistry and Physics teacher and longtime member of the American Chemical Society, was elated to hear the news. Mitchell states: “Removing plastic straws from the cafeteria is a good start in helping students and the community-at-large become aware of the many synthetic polymers they use and toss on a daily basis. All single-use plastics, including those made from polypropylene like straws, have a deleterious effect on both our health and the environment. Eliminating plastic straws helps chip away at the iceberg of pollution that plagues our oceans and human health.”
The School District isn’t stopping at straws — they have worked with Chartwells to shift from selling petroleum-based plastic water bottles in cafeterias and vending machines to providing water in bottles made from plant-based materials. As water is the most popular beverage sold in Rye schools, this change marks a significant development. However, the school system is ultimately looking to move away from selling water completely by adding more bottle filling stations throughout school buildings and encouraging students to bring and utilize reusable water bottles.
During an interview for this article, Dr. Byrne shared that the school system is fortunate to serve a community in which kids are aware of environmental issues and one where families value making environmentally-friendly choices and teaching such standards at home. He stated that, “As a school system, we are committed to sustainability and to helping our students understand how important simple decisions such as eliminating plastic straws can be in helping our environment.”
We, in turn, should feel fortunate to have a superintendent and school system who are proactively moving forward with addressing the issue of single-use plastics and heading in a positive direction in terms of sustainability, environmental awareness, and protecting the beautiful municipality in which we reside.