Over the last few months, there has been a push by organizations, countries, cities and companies globally to crack down on plastic straws, products that studies show are contributing to the nearly nine million tons of plastic that infect the oceans annually.
With anti-straw advocacy afoot, Canadian restaurants including Harvey’s and Swiss Chalet have announced plans to axe or restrict single-use plastic straws. Ontario universities such as the University of Guelph and Western University are eagerly ridding their campuses of the utensils.
While corporations and organizations have largely been in favour of abandoning plastic straws, disability advocates have pushed back against these efforts, citing the importance of plastic straws for people with physical limitations.
There are also groups challenging the movement on environmental grounds, arguing that paper straws, which are being embraced as plastic straws vanish, are accelerating deforestation, the second leading cause of climate change.
When asked about McMaster’s stance on the plastic straw debate, Chris Roberts, director of McMaster Hospitality Services, said the university is also considering a plastic straw ban. However, MHS will not commit until it engages in nuanced discussions about the effects of a plastic straw ban on stakeholders including students who need them for accessibility reasons.
“It is important for us to take a strategic approach through the understanding of impacts to all stakeholders as opposed to making a reactive decision,” said Roberts.
In a statement on the MHS website, Roberts outlines limitations to a plastic straw ban and stresses the importance of consultations with the McMaster Students Union and Equity and Inclusion Office.
“We need to take into consideration all of the stakeholders in the customer base, including those who rely on straws as a result of physical limitations. We need to fully understand the broader systemic sustainability issue and how a more holistic approach may have a greater impact for our customers, community and environment,” reads part of the statement.
Stephanie Bertolo, MSU vice president (Education), says the union appreciates Robert’s commitment to considering the needs of marginalized students on campus.
"The MSU supports the university's efforts to become more environmentally sustainable but asks them to do the proper consultation to ensure their initiatives do not interfere with the accessibility of our campus,” she said.
The EIO’s stance on the issue is notably similar to the MSU’s.
“We are pleased to see that Hospitality Services is expressing mindfulness and consideration of the implications on multiple stakeholders and that there is explicit mention of plans to consult with particular marginalized communities,” said Arig al Shaibah, associate vice president at the EIO.
Unlike at Guelph and Western, where there have been vocal pro-straw-ban voices, the movement has not gained the same traction at McMaster. This is evidenced by the fact that there has not been a #StrawsSuck campaign here, at least not a visible one online.
According to Abbie Little, the coordinator of academic sustainability at the McMaster academic sustainability programs office, however, in the SUSTAIN 2S03 and 3S03 courses, discussions about plastic straws were polarized.
Mohammad Abdul Aziz, a Teaching Assistant for the 3S03 course, says there were quite a few ardent pro-ban students in his classroom.
“From my understanding, students were more than welcome to the idea of banning straws,” said Aziz. “Students believed that eco-friendly practices are not adopted in one fell swoop but need minor introductions to the consumers of multi-national corporations.”
While it looks like a straw ban will not be implemented at McMaster, Roberts did not say the university is committed to the status quo indefinitely. Only time, research and MSU and EIO consultations will tell what lies in store for the future of plastic straw users on campus.