Matthew Terrell was just a normal student going to college in a small North Georgia town.
Terrell wasn’t all that concerned about the environment and his impact on it. He began interning with Justin Ellis, director of the Environmental Leadership Center and professor of biology at the University of North Georgia, in the fall of 2016, though, and all of that changed.
He went on to join the UNG Sustains club and wanted to make some sort of difference on the environment. So he, along with the rest of the club and the university’s SCUBA club, came together and won a competition sponsored by Simply Straws, a company that sells reusable glass drinking straws as a replacement for ordinary plastic straws.
“We really wanted to engage the student body and were really excited about how welcoming they were to this initiative,” Terrell said. “We’re hoping to use this in the coming semester to try to push more change on campus and in Dahlonega. If we can say all these students care … we can make a difference in our community.”
Each student who signed a pledge to not use plastic straws received a coupon for a glass straw. More than 500 students signed the pledge and Jessica Hartel, a lecturer of biology at the university, said she saw an immediate impact.
“I saw glass straws everywhere on campus,” Hartel said. “They’re really proud of it … I would see students walking around on campus with them, so it was really spreading.”
The Plastic Pollution Coalition said more than 500 million plastic straws are used each day in the United States. Most of those straws can’t be recycled, so they’re thrown away and sent to a landfill, sometimes ending up in the ocean, making it easy for animals to swallow or be injured.
“Straws are something you can easily avoid,” Ellis said. “Everybody uses them all the time, but if you really think about it, there’s always a solution to getting around using them.”
For Ellis, that solution was using a glass straw himself and asking servers at restaurants for normal, reusable cups for his child.
“Sometimes people will react different ways,” Ellis said. “The waiter will say ‘That’s really cool … why have you decided to do that?’ So it’s kind of a way to engage in a cool conversation with people about why we’ve changed our behavior.”
Many students at UNG chose the glass straw solution, too. But it’s not just individuals catching onto the trend of reusable straws. Restaurants in the area have decided to choose more environmentally friendly options.
Hartel said Shenanigans, an Irish pub in Dahlonega, doesn’t ask if guests want a straw anymore. It waits for the guest to ask for one. When they do, they’re given a biodegradable straw.
She said Spirits Tavern had already been using biodegradable carryout boxes and cups, but decided to move toward biodegradable straws, too, once students from the clubs at UNG talked with the restaurant about it.
“I had some students go out to some local business that aren’t (using biodegradable straws) and got some verbal agreements from those business that they at least were not going to put the straws in the cup anymore. They were going to wait until a person asks for it,” Hartel said. “They’re going to look into making some kind of change over the course of the next couple months or year.”
The trend hasn’t fully made its way to Gainesville, though. Atlas Pizza on the downtown Gainesville square currently uses plastic straws, even though front-of-house manager Naomi Gnome said it tried to switch to straws with an enzyme that helps break the plastic down about a month ago. There was a problem with the distributor, so the restaurant had to go back to regular plastic. Gnome said Atlas will be switching to paper as soon as it’s available. For the time being, though, it has to offer some sort of straw option.
“If you just say ‘No straws,’ there are people that aren’t going to be happy about it,” Gnome said. “I don’t understand why, but they’re not happy that they can’t suck their beverage through a piece of plastic.”
Inman Perk, a coffee shop on the Gainesville square, uses plastic straws, too. It has a sign posted, encouraging guests to go without, though: “Help the Ocean. Refuse a Straw!!”
Grace Miller-Bell, a barista at Inman Perk, said she thinks the coffee shop is looking into switching over to paper straws. She said they encourage guests to use one of the shop’s reusable mugs if they’re going to be staying in the area, too.
“It’s just behavior we all do and don’t think anything of it,” Hartel said. “But I think people are really starting to think ‘This is a small change I can make that can actually have a really big impact on the environment.’”