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Pitt turns straws into activist art

University of Pittsburgh Dining participates in citywide plastic straw collection project to create public art for a cause.

Plastic straws are getting a lot of heat lately as a critical mass of consumers realize that the ubiquitous objects are only used for about 20 minutes on average and cannot be recycled. Restaurants and foodservice operations are going strawless, although that’s drawn some ire as well, since some people have disabilities that make straws a need, not a want. Developments are happening with glass and even metal straws that can be used again or paper straws, which can be recycled. 

In the meantime, the Straw Forward public art project from Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurants means to shine a light on straws and other single-use disposables that are adding up to a big environmental problem. 

Nick Goodfellow
Photo: Pitt Dining

Pitt Dining at the University of Pittsburgh is taking part in Straw Forward, and Nick Goodfellow, even though he’s the sustainability coordinator with Sodexo for Pitt Dining, was surprised at just how many straws we all use. 

“The photo of me with the bin shows the first straws we collected from just one weekend,” Goodfellow says. “When you start collecting your own straws to upcycle them you really start to recognize how easily they’re given out.”

Starting last week, straw collection bins are set up at two busy coffee venues on campus. Through social media, Pitt Dining has been getting the word out to students. Through early fall, the straws collected here will join straws collected at more than a dozen Pittsburgh restaurants and foodservice operations to be turned into a piece of art that will be displayed in a public place.

“We’ve also been working with our coffee cart staff to serve cold beverages without straws or lids if requested by customers and have placed prompts asking customers to consider skipping the straw and lid when ordering a cold beverage,” Goodfellow says.

For years, beverage culture at Pitt Dining has been steadily veering toward the eco-conscious side, with the successful BYO[Mug] program in which students can get a 25-cent discount on espresso drinks and brewed coffee for a dollar if they bring their own mug.

Photo: Pitt Dining

A similar program, BYO[Bag] has led to a significant reduction in the use of plastic bags all round campus (an amazing 95-percent reduction, according to Pitt Dining data, with a total of 1.3 million plastic bags prevented since 2014). 

Art installations that draw attention to societal issues are “great ways to raise awareness and advance a conversation,” Goodfellow says, citing examples shared on Greenpeace’s Instagram account, “Especially when it comes to single-use disposables like plastic straws. I really like those pieces because you may read about how much plastic is in the ocean, but at least here in Pittsburgh, it’s difficult to visualize it. And visualizing a problem is very important for creating an understanding of the problem and then advocating for action to address it.”

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