SALEM — The city's school district is doing away with plastic straws.

Students enrolled in Salem Public Schools will be sipping milk through paper straws this year as businesses, organizations and even cities across the country start replacing plastic straws with more environmentally friendly, faster-decomposing varieties.

Part of the change comes from a switch in utensils across the district. Students have historically been given a "spork kit," according to Deb Jeffers, the district's food services director. The kits generally included a spork, napkin and straw.

Unused or under-appreciated parts of that kit frequently wound up in the trash, Jeffers said. The kits will now be replaced with dispensers allowing students to get a fork or spoon as needed. 

As for the straws?

"I wanted to get rid of the straws," Jeffers said. "I hate them."

Plastic straws have come under fire recently from environmentalists, who say they can take up to 500 years to decompose.

Paper straws are made out of thick, paper-based material, according to Suzanne Charette, an environmental and school specialist at Mansfield Paper in West Springfield. They're capable of sitting in liquids for several days without losing structural integrity, but then decompose rapidly.

Jeffers is responsible for the push at the district level, and it has already seen backing from students who have seen the now infamous "turtle" video, she said. In the video, pliers-wielding researchers forcibly remove a plastic straw from the nose of a bleeding sea turtle.

"When I started seeing it, that really freaked me out," Jeffers said. "I was like, 'Oh my god, we have so many straws out there. We're contributing to this.'"The move has the support of Superintendent Margarita Ruiz, who said she's proud of "the example and mindset that we're helping our students to acquire by us doing this."

"Part of our work as educators is preparing our students for the future, for lives as contributing adults," Ruiz said. "When you look at our mission statement, we want students who are locally engaged, locally connected and fully prepared in this society. As we're moving into the 21st century, you have to be well-connected to the environment to have a respect for the environment, and work with the environment to get the resources you need."

Trendy topic

The drive to ban plastic straws has been gathering momentum across the nation. Perhaps most famously, the city of Seattle banned plastic straws and utensils this past summer.

The trend has actually grown to the point where it is becoming its own biggest enemy.

"This has become such a hot item and topic that for the past six months to a year, the only U.S. manufacturer for paper straws has been bought out, and they're not taking on any clients now because they don't have any inventory," Charette said.

"Nobody manufactures a 5 3/4-inch milk straw for schools. I'm working with a Connecticut-based company that's also an importer, that has a plant in China that matches U.S. standards."

Paper straws won't be available on the first day of school.

"We're hoping to see something September, October, November, maybe the middle of December," Charette said. "I've got Salem — of course, (Jeffers) is always the first one who calls me on something. Then we've got East Bridgewater, Lincoln Public Schools, Chelmsford. I have a few schools in Connecticut. Boston University is interested."

For the time being, the school district will be providing plastic straws when a student requires one because of a physical disability or limitation, Jeffers said. For other students, there won't be any straws until the paper ones become available.

The switch will come at a slight increase in cost, still to be determined, but Jeffers said it's not expected to be significant. And she believes prices will come down as more districts join the movement and manufacturing of the straws ramps up.

Barbara Warren, executive director of Salem Sound Coastwatch, applauded the move while echoing that cost concern.

"It's a great move by the city," Warren said. "The more and more people are using paper straws again, then they'll become cheaper and they'll become available to everyone."

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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