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Skipping the straw: How Chapel Hill businesses and UNC are reducing waste

Ethan Hoffman Reusable straw

Ethan Hoffman cleans out his reusable straw.

The anti-plastic straw movement has gone mainstream this summer, with businesses across the nation and the Triangle adopting policies to reduce their plastic waste.

UNC’s Sustainability Office is working across campus to reduce the presence of all types of single-use plastics. Chapel Hill restaurants such as Carolina Brewery, Crossroads Chapel Hill, Starbucks and Perennial Cafe, have started phasing out plastic straws in some way — and more are likely to follow their lead. 

Crossroads Chapel Hill, the Carolina Inn's restaurant, is implementing a policy to only provide plastic straws and stirrers upon request. Michelle Voelpel, marketing and public relations manager at the Carolina Inn, said in an email if eliminating something as small as a plastic straw makes a change in the right direction, the Carolina Inn wants to be part of that shift.

“The onus is on each of us to make a positive difference in this world,” she said.

Voelpel said they have seen an overwhelming positive response, and this is just the beginning. 

“We are in the process of finding a replacement straw, which we plan to roll out within a few months,” she said. 

Vivian Le, a sophomore cultural studies major and sustainability minor at UNC, said she thinks the movement has gained so much momentum because of the way it’s advertised.

“The pictures you see — a straw and a tiny, cute, little animal — they make it really striking,” she said. “The way it’s being portrayed is hitting people’s emotions more. Straws with cute, little animals – nobody wants to hurt that. Before, it was just an environmental thing, so people didn’t really care as much.”

Le said she thinks UNC is doing a good job reducing plastic waste, but there’s always room for improvement. 

“I think we could do a little better by making straws less accessible – people grab them because of the convenience,” she said. “If they were behind the counter and you had to ask for it, I think less people would use straws.” 

Olivia James, spokesperson for Campus Enterprises at UNC, said the Sustainability Office and Carolina Dining Services work closely to reduce the use of single-use plastic.

“This fall, almost everything at Mainstreet in Lenoir and the Beach will be compostable,” she said in an email. “This includes clamshells, cups, lids, straws, napkins and utensils.”

Tania Dautlick, executive director of Keep Durham Beautiful, which is a nonprofit focused on litter prevention, waste reduction and community greening, said getting restaurants involved is critical because it raises awareness and reaches people who might not be aware a problem exists with straws.

“In reality, we’re trying to avoid all single-use plastic as much as possible and focus on either doing without a piece of plastic or finding a reusable alternative,” Dautlick said.

There’s been a lot of positive interest from those who want to make the change, said Dautlick, but some are more hesitant than others. 

“People are creatures of habit,” she said. “They sometimes enjoy drinking from a straw, and it can be a little bit more expensive to use a reusable or paper straw. One of the easier things restaurants can do is not automatically put it in the drink and wait for the customer to ask for the straw.”

Dautlick said it’s really exciting and heartwarming to see interest from students and the North Carolina community in making a difference.

“The straws are not the only problem,” she said. “But it’s one small change that people can make that usually isn’t too much effort, starts the conversation and helps people become aware of the issue.”

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