Reducing Single-Use Plastics

It’s happening quickly and globally: Bans on single-use plastic products such as straws, utensils, bags, bottled water, and balloons. The worldwide push, led by a diverse group of activists that has ranged from school children in Scotland to a photojournalist in Kenya, rose to a new level within higher education when a food service company with contracts at more than 100 U.S. college campuses said it would completely phase out plastic straws by next year. 


“The plastic problem is horrific,” said Bon Appétit CEO and Cofounder Fedele Bauccio in a press release. “When I heard the stats and learned how much damage is being done by straws—a product of convenience—my gut reaction was, we have to change this!” 

The company will completely phase out plastic straws at 1,000 cafes and restaurants by September 2019, including at dining spots it operates at ACUI member schools like Case Western Reserve University, Emory University, Furman University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Pennsylvania, Vassar College, and Washington University in St. Louis. 

These institutions join a long list of others already taking steps to reduce single-use plastics on campuses. Dartmouth College and the University of Maryland had already dropped plastic straws, and the University of Vermont and University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point are among universities that have restricted or banned the sale of single-use bottled water. 

Oberlin College banned single-use bottled water in 1999 and has since been a leader in sustainable food service products. A fee is charged for single-use coffee cups, and discounts are given for students using their own coffee mug. Plates, napkins, utensils, cups, and mugs are all compostable, and there is even a reusable to-go container program. 

“For the reusable container program, you sign up with your ID card. You can return the container, and it will be washed for you and you can receive a new one,” said Oberlin Sustainability Manager Bridget Flynn. “Additionally, there is a way if you don't want a new container right then that you are given a carabiner. Then when you ask for the reusable container with your food, the patron can turn in the carabiner.” 

Plastic bags are still distributed at Pennsylvania State University, but an EcoCoin program operating at the bookstore is raising awareness about reducing and ending their use. Customers there have the option to take a plastic bag or receive an EcoCoin, which can then be placed in one of three boxes representing different student organizations engaged in sustainability. Each EcoCoin represents a 5-cent donation made by the Penn State Bookstore. 

Cities, states, and countries are joining in the plastics revolt, which in turn can affect colleges and universities within their jurisdictions. Photographs by photojournalist James Wakibia helped initiate a campaign that led Kenya to create the toughest penalties in the world for making, selling, and using plastic bags (up to four years in jail and $38,000 in fines). France, which banned plastic bags in 2015, will begin enforcing a ban on most plastic cups, plates, and cutlery in 2020. And in the United Kingdom, primary school age students led a campaign that resulted in the nation’s first village banning plastic straws. 

In the United States, California and Hawaii—along with the cities of Austin, Boston, Seattle, Portland, and Chicago—have banned plastic bags, and Seattle banned all plastic straws and utensils from restaurants in June. At least three states and 14 cities have plastic straw bans in the works, according to Fast Company. 

Additionally, at least seven states and as many U.S. cities have laws banning or restricting the release of balloons, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is conducting a social marketing awareness campaign after volunteers found more than 900 balloons in Virginia’s Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in three hours. 

Graduates carrying unique balloons has been a commencement tradition at the University of Virginia, but this year the Office for Sustainability and Green Greeks worked to change the tradition, asking students to sign a no-balloon pledge and leave a smaller environmental footprint. 

“Balloons are one of the most prevalent types of marine debris that are contributing to one of the largest global environmental challenges, ocean pollution,” Nina Morris, sustainability program manager for outreach and engagement at the Office for Sustainability, told the campus newspaper.  

The challenge with all these single-use plastics, of course, is that they don’t go away. The National Park Service estimates 500 million single-use plastic straws are used and thrown away daily in the United States, and a World Economic Forum study found that 32% of the world’s plastic packaging escapes collection systems and that 8 million metric tons of plastic enter oceans each year. 

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