Brightly colored straws thrown around on a table. The “Strawless Suffolk” initiative seeks to wean consumers off of using straws, in order to reduce the amount of plastic waste found on beaches. HORIA VARLAN/WIKIMEDIACOMMONS VIA CC BY 2.0

In an effort to become more sustainable, Stony Brook University has signed onto a county-wide initiative aimed at eliminating plastic straws. Instead of plastic, all dining locations other than Starbucks will now offer special straws made of polylactic acid.

“These straws are biodegradable and made out of corn starch, which is a renewable resource, unlike traditional plastic straws which are made from petroleum,” Director of Marketing & Communications for the Faculty Student Association, Angela Agnello, stated in an email. “We recognize that there are people with disabilities and corn allergies that need straws, and that these straws cannot be used with hot beverages, so plastic straws will be available upon request.”

As for Starbucks, the company announced last month that it has begun phasing out plastic straws and hopes to eliminate them from all store locations by 2020.

According to environmental group, the Ocean Conservancy, plastic straws were the seventh most common piece of trash found during beach cleanups in 2017.

The “Strawless Suffolk” initiative, headed by County Legislator Kara Hahn, hopes to cut down on the number of straws that wind up in the ocean by getting local restaurants to pledge that they will go strawless or find an eco-friendly alternative. The initiative set out with the goal of getting 100 restaurants to sign on in time for Labor Day. Although they haven’t quite reached that milestone yet, Hahn said she is still proud of the work they’ve done thus far.

“Stony Brook has so many people so the impact is really great,” she said. “The campus is a tremendously powerful environment for folks to make change. The students really have the power to envision the world better and then make it so in their immediate surrounding.”

For some students, such as president of the Environmental Club and senior sustainability studies major Condrea Zhuang, the switch signals a welcome change from the university, but it still does not go far enough in addressing the problem at hand.

“From what I could see there were no actual compost bins in dining halls for students to throw their compostable straws into meaning that those straws are going into a landfill just like everything else,” she said.  “I want to be hopeful of our new sustainable direction and environmentally friendly prospects at campus dining but I remain skeptical.”

While some have noted that plastic straws are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of cutting back on the consumption of single-use plastic, former graduate student in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and vice-chair of the Suffolk County Single-Use Plastic Reduction Task Force, Kaitlin Willig, said she believes it is important to start somewhere.

“Straws are not the biggest problem, but straws are easy to stop using,” Willig wrote in an email. “We give up a little convenience and make a step forward to get the public aware of the problem, moving to make a difference. Straws are definitely not meant to be an end goal, but instead should be looked at as one of our first baby steps towards a more environmentally responsible future.