Rice Coffeehouse switches to biodegradable straws, reducing plastic waste

Americans generate a lot of trash, including 500 million plastic straws per day — enough to wrap around the earth 2 1/2 times. A growing movement to reduce plastic straw usage is aimed at keeping this waste out of the oceans, and the student-run Rice Coffeehouse has joined the effort by switching out their plastic straws in favor of a biodegradable version.

Emily Rychener, general manager of Rice Coffeehouse, shows off the new compostable straws that debuted in February. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Emily Rychener, general manager of Rice Coffeehouse, shows off the new compostable straws that debuted in February. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

“They’re actually made from corn,” general manager Emily Rychener, a Lovett College junior, said of the new straws, which are consistent with Coffeehouse’s focus on sustainability. Other such measures include offering a discount on drinks for those who bring their own mugs; a switch to single-dispense, 100 percent-recycled-material napkins; purchasing fair trade beans from a local roaster; and composting spent coffee grounds in Rice’s own compost site built in 2015 by students in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology program’s Community Garden class, the Rice Urban Agriculture club and the Rice Student Volunteer Program.

Rychener and Coffeehouse inventory manager Sarah Gao, a McMurtry College sophomore, sought an environmentally friendly straw replacement at the beginning of this semester. They expected to have to pay more for biodegradable straws than plastic but were met with a pleasant surprise. “They were the same price,” Gao said, noting that this information made the decision to switch much easier.

The corn-based straws are used only for cold drinks; they melt in hot ones. Gao said Coffeehouse, which uses 450 pounds of espresso beans and more than 750 pounds of drip coffee per month, has already gone through its first shipment of 10,000 straws that arrived in February.

“The actions of the student leadership of Coffeehouse are indicative of a broader trend that I’m seeing among our students, and that is a desire to move away from single-use products that cannot be recycled or composted,” said Richard Johnson ’92, director of Rice’s Administrative Center for Sustainability and Energy Management. For example, Rice student eco-reps initiated the purchase of reusable wares at several residential colleges for parties as a substitute for disposable products, while the Office of Housing and Dining stopped buying Styrofoam several years ago as part of an effort that led to Green Restaurant Association certification for all of the serveries.

Providing transformative undergraduate education through real-world problem solving, leadership experience and entrepreneurial opportunities is one of the goals of Rice’s Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade.

“I’m proud of the students at Coffeehouse for setting a great example of ethical procurement,” Johnson said.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.