By Amanda Alvarez
Plastic straws remain widespread at vendors in the Campus Center despite an apparent ban that went into effect last May.
Plastic straws, which along with other single-use plastics are a main source of pollution since most plastics are not biodegradable. Many of these plastics end up in wildlife habitats which ultimately pose a threat to plants and animals. Within the variety of dining locations in the campus center such as Nikos, Star Ginger, and SubConnection, to name a few all have displays of plastic straws that are readily available for anyone to grab.
The University Auxiliary Services, Sodexo, student affairs, and the Office for Sustainability all oversee projects such as the removal of plastic straws.
“I am not happy about the situation, I have reached out to UAS and other university officials to inquire into the matter,” said Grace McGrath environmental activist and the student who pushed for the ban. McGrath was under the impression that straws were no longer going to be available.
According to Director of Sustainability Mary Ellen Mallia the ban last May was not really meant to be a blanket ban.
“We were cautious about using the term ‘ban’ at the time of the decision but the term was used to describe the action and the vernacular stuck,” she said. “The main goal of the action was to eliminate straw use as much as possible.”
In an April of 2019 article in the Times Union, a month before the incentive was meant to take place, Mallia, told the Times Union “there won’t be plastic straws available.”
Executive Director of UAS Stephen Pearse, says that the conflict with eliminating plastic straws is the discrimination against those with disabilities. Compostable alternatives to plastic straws had been considered by Sodexo and UAS, but the Disability Resource Center said the alternatives weren’t acceptable because some people are allergic to these materials.
“I felt kind of stuck between these two situations, a worthy cause because it’s the right thing to do with what straws are doing,” says Pearse “ and also being sensitive to those who actually need a straw.”
In regards to the percentage of individuals with disabilities who may require a straw on campus is not summarized. Assistant Director of the Disability Resource Center, Carrie Snyder says “each person’s disability is different, and some flare up at different times, requiring accommodations one day and not the next.”
In a board meeting that took place last year in May before the initiation of the “ban”, a resolution was drawn up. According to Pearse because of the concern with those with disabilities straws would only be offered upon request. “The unfortunate thing is that almost everyone requests them, people don’t seem to be sensitive or care about it.”
But, a walk around the campus center indicates that straws are not available upon request, but readily available for anyone to grab, if not offered outright.
“Whenever I get a smoothie from the 518 Market they always give me a plastic straw with it,” said UAlbany student Neika Chery. “I didn’t even know there was a ban on plastic straws there’s never been an alternative like paper.”
“We’re selling less soda but we’re actually down about 70% in our straws,” Retail Manager for Sodexo Jeff Kurto said. “We were targeted last year at about 600,000 straws. To date, we’ve bought about 46,000 last semester which puts us just under 100,000 for the year. So we’re seeing a pretty good reduction.”
He also says that there are still alternatives being considered such as sippable lids for the Pepsi cups which may be implemented next Fall.
“One thing I’d really love to make clear is that we understand and embrace philosophically and conceptually what we’re trying to do,” says Pearse “we’re not blockers, it’s not because we don’t want to do it, it’s because we’re trying to be sensitive.”
As a scuba diver of over 40 years, Pearse has seen all the plastic sitting at the bottom of the ocean.
“For me it’s heartbreaking, I just want to make it clear again that we understand,” he said.
Pearse and Kurto agree that if plastic straws were banned by Albany County the way plastic bags are banned starting March 1, it would be a lot easier to eliminate plastic straws as a whole. Until then, students are encouraged to practice eco-friendly behaviors in order to limit the production of plastic on campus.