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Cities and businesses are skipping the straw: What about schools?

A not so long time ago in a galaxy not so far away, Dr. Laura Engel, Director of the International Education Program at George Washington University and Ms. Clese Erikson, Deputy Director of the Health Workforce Research Center at George Washington University, challenged elementary age students to take part in the Straw Wars. Check out this guest blog to learn how the program has helped kids consider skipping the straw and more broadly, how to reduce single use plastics. 

Cities and businesses are skipping the straw: What about schools?

By Laura Engel and Clese Erikson

How many straws do you use in one day? One week? One year? If you eat out at restaurants, buy iced coffee, or your children enjoy juice boxes, chances are that number adds up.

One pervasive statistic is that Americans use 500 million straws per day. And despite some controversy over this oft-used statistic, the fact remains: Plastic is altering our planet. Among the 18 billion pounds of plastic that make its way into the earth’s oceans every single year, plastic straws are among the leading culprits. They are single use and not recyclable.

We recently involved two elementary schools in Northern Virginia in a small environmental education project called Straw Wars. The project asked a simple question: How many straws do students use in one week (5 days)? Our intention was to grow students’ curiosities and encourage their participation in a critical conversation happening about single use plastics and their impact on the health of our planet. During a designated week, students in each elementary school were invited to participate by collecting and placing any straw that they had used in school or at home in one of two Straw Wars containers, generously created by Streamline Construction LLC. We placed one container by the school entrance and one in the cafeteria. At the end of the week, we counted the straws and talked to the students about the findings. What we found offers an important opportunity for reducing the single use plastics our young people interact with on a daily basis.

Across two public schools, a total of 1,906 straws were collected in those 5 days (along with a handful of plastic utensils and 3 orange slices). One of the schools, enrolling under 500 students/year, produced 1,478 of those straws. A closer look at the containers of this school showed us that only 101 of the school’s 1,478 straws were collected in the container by the front door, meaning 1,377 straws were used in the cafeteria in just one school week. The majority of students in this school receive free and reduced price meals, and we noticed this in the similarity in type, size, and color of the collected straws. This means that the vast majority of the collected straws were those provided by the school district. Many were never in fact opened and used, and were thrown away in their original plastic wrapper.

In the 2016-2017 school year, the public school district that houses these schools served 1,636,748 lunches, in addition to 900,453 breakfasts, 79,837 after-school snacks, and 22,031 after-school meals. In the United States, 4.9 billion school lunches are provided annually. Without a doubt, these are laudable and necessary programs. Yet, given the widening gaps of inequality in the U.S. that create the need for such school programs, it is important to look at the environmental impacts of single use plastics, such as Styrofoam trays now omnipresent in U.S. school cafeterias, and in particular, schools’ plastic straw use.

When asked to provide suggestions for how to reduce the numbers of plastic straws used, the number one response from the elementary age students was a simple one, “do not use them.” Recent public awareness campaigns, like Stop Sucking, National Skip the Straw Day (February 23), and Plastic or Planet? all have recommended the same solution. In fact, skipping the straw is on the National Geographic list of pain free things we can all do to address the mounting plastic problem. Companiescities, and multiple countries have starting to take action by banning plastic straws; McDonalds in the UK recently announced that it is phasing them out. These are all steps in the right direction; restaurants and individual consumers can make a difference. Now it’s time for schools, the institutions that bear considerable responsibility to educate future generations about active citizenship and sustainability, to do the same and skip the straw.

Laura Engel, PhD

Laura is an Associate Professor of International Education and International Affairs at the George Washington University (GW), where she is director of the International Education Program, co-director of the certificate program, Incorporating International Perspectives into Education, and co-chair of the GW UNESCO Chair in International Education for Development.

Laura has been actively involved in international education research in England, Spain, Romania, and the U.S., and has taught international experiences courses in Senegal and Cuba. Her interdisciplinary research on globalization studies, citizenship, and education policy has appeared in over 50 publications, including in Educational Policy, Compare, Journal of Educational Research, and Comparative Education Review. Her book, New State Formations in Education Policy: Reflections from Spain focused on globalization of education in federal systems drawing on the case of Catalonia and Spain.

Her current work, funded by the National Geographic Society, focuses on the impacts of the DCPS Study Abroad and Local/Global Spaces programs on DC students, serving as the basis for the newly launched K-12 Global Forum. She also leads the National Science Foundation funded Arctic PIRE’s educational outreach project, #60above60, connecting Arctic and non-Arctic urban classrooms through the global exchanges of digital environmental stories. Dr. Engel holds a PhD in Education Policy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Clese Erikson

Ms. Erikson is the Deputy Director of the Health Workforce Research Center at The George Washington University (GW) and a member of the senior leadership team of the GW Health Workforce Institute. She is currently focused on researching care coordination activities, the impact of electronic health records on productivity and staffing ratios, and the role of new payment and delivery models on workforce patterns. She has published peer review articles on primary care and specialty specific workforce issues, consumer interest in seeing nurse practitioners and physician assistants, workforce implications of new care delivery models, and on medical school enrollment trends. 

Prior to joining GW, Ms. Erikson was senior director of the Center for Workforce Studies at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) where she was responsible for overseeing the Center’s research strategy, directed efforts on how workforce needs are evolving under new payment and delivery models and regularly convened workforce researchers to enhance methods and dissemination of findings. She was the U.S. Chair of the 17th International Health Workforce Conference and has had past leadership roles on various other workforce conferences including chairing the AcademyHealth Annual Research Meeting Workforce Theme and the Health Workforce Interest Group. Ms. Erikson was also a founding member of the leadership team of a student learning collaborative on hot spotting sponsored by the Camden Coalition, Primary Care Progress, and the AAMC and is now a part of the advisory committee. Prior to joining the AAMC, Ms. Erikson was director of research for the American Medical Group Association where she focused on patient safety and quality improvement initiatives and patient and provider satisfaction studies.