Renewable and compostable straws in East Side Dining. The initiative to reduce plastic use in dining halls was introduced last spring. SARA RUBERG/ THE STATESMAN

Stony Brook University’s campus dining program launched a sustainable dining initiative last spring to reduce plastic use in dining halls.

Led by the Faculty Student Organization (FSA), the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) and Culinart, dining halls stopped offering several non-biodegradable products such as plastic straws and plastic containers, in favor of biodegradable alternatives. 

“Dining locations have transitioned away from using disposable plastics and instead are using compostable containers made from sugarcane, paper products and Greenware, drink cups and containers made entirely from annually renewable plants — not petroleum,” Van Sullivan, the executive director of the FSA, wrote in an email. “This impactful transition away from disposable plastics will annually eliminate the use of over one-million plastic serveware items across campus.”

In addition to the sustainability efforts, starting in February, the university will take part in RecycleMania, where it will compete against over 300 North American campuses to reduce waste and increase recycling, Sullivan said.

East Side Dine-In, West Side Dine-In and the Roth Food Court now offer reusable takeout containers, which can be purchased with a $5 deposit. Customers will receive their deposit back when they return the containers to be washed. Sullivan wrote that FSA and USG are looking to expand the biodegradable and reusable takeout container to other dining locations next semester.

“We are also researching containers for Jasmine that are compostable yet able to hold the hot temperatures of entrees and sauces without breaking down before a guest can consume their meal,” Sullivan wrote in an email.

The sustainability initiative will also eliminate plastic bags from dining convenience stores. Reusable tote bags are being sold instead.

At all campus dining locations, plastic straws were eliminated and replaced with straws made out of cornstarch by customer’s request at the cashier. Plastic straws are non-recyclable due to their size. They are abundant in landfills and on beaches. A 2017 study quoted in National Geographic estimates that more than 8 billion plastic straws clutter beaches around the world.

Straws made from biodegradable materials such as paper cost two and a half cents to a plastic straws half a cent. Although this is a slight increase in price for the individual straw, plastic straws are an item bought in large quantities. Sullivan said the cost of the shift to biodegradable materials opposed to plastic for the dining halls isn’t a problem for Stony Brook.

“Our partner, CulinArt, has absorbed the costs of the plastic reduction program in the dining halls, so that it doesn’t impact retail prices and meal plan costs,” Sullivan wrote.  

The two Starbucks Coffee locations on campus have started to cut plastic straws by using strawless lids for their plastic cups. Starbucks Coffee has pledged to eliminate plastic straws from over 28,000 stores in the franchise by 2020.

Stony Brook’s changes follow a recent trend of limiting disposable plastics in Suffolk County. Laws signed in April target single use plastics straws, except by request for purposes of a disability, and styrofoam containers. The laws will take effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

Kara Hahn, the Suffolk County legislator for the 5th District, is the lead sponsor for the legislation that has restricted the use of non-biodegradable materials in Suffolk County. 

Hahn introduced a “Single Use Plastic Reduction Task Force” in April 2018 to help study challenges facing the county in relation to single use plastics.

As a member of Suffolk County government, Hahn said it is part of her responsibility as a legislator to encourage or discourage different behaviors through bans, fines and penalties. She believes that plastics and other non-biodegradable materials need to be addressed as a threat to the county’s public health and safety.

Hahn added that Stony Brook University is an important leader in college campus sustainability initiatives. 

“Our shared future depends on more than just one, or a few university campuses deciding to reduce their plastic footprint,” Hahn wrote in an email. “It is my hope that Stony Brook University’s leadership on sustainability will not only show that going green will not put their businesses into the red, but also inspire them to make the changes their customer and our environment demand.”

Aakash Bhatia, a first year computer science graduate student, supports limiting plastics. The laws and trends shifting away from plastics have already hit his home city of Mumbai, India, where plastic is banned.

In terms of expenses, he recognizes that sustainability efforts, not just for the dining halls, but for the university as a whole, may cost more. Nevertheless, he believes that the shift will inevitably be better for both the environment and possibly better financially.

“[Just] small things, like even clean energy; it would be expensive to set up, but in the long run, [it] could be cheaper,” Bhatia said.

Hannah Ofori, a junior psychology major, carries around a reusable water bottle to reduce the amount of single-use plastic she uses. Ofori supports the shift in the dining halls to help the environment and hopes the trends toward sustainability will push students to use reusable water bottles and straws.

“Everywhere it seems like they’re trying to [shift to biodegradable materials], it’s better that they start doing that,” Ofori said. “If you change from plastic to a better material that’s better for the environment then I think that’s better. [Straw material] shouldn’t make any difference because it serves the same purpose.”

Jordan Gresham, a sophomore psychology major, understands that some people might have a problem with the durability of paper straws, but he is more than willing to shift to biodegradable materials for the planet’s health.

”Some might say that [paper is] less sturdy of a material, but I don’t really have a problem with it at all,” Gresham said, “It’s important that we do something about the environment.”

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