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By Candice Bernd
March 1, 2012
Caption : Students working in coordination with the Plastic Pollution Coalition hope to pressure the university to eliminate the use of environmentally harmful plastic bags and other disposable items.     

Bottles, bags, straws, lids, and sporks—plastics most college students use every day on campus, and sometimes for just a few minutes before throwing them away.

But these products never really go away, even if they disappear into the trash can.

Most plastics, which are made from a currently diminishing supply of petrochemicals, are not designed to be recycled and are not biodegradable. Instead, they break down into very fine particles, called polymers, when exposed to ultraviolet radiation and those particles can attract toxic chemicals. Incinerating plastic produces toxic particulate matter.

These particles are piling up in the oceans, in the form of giant garbage islands, and are building up in the digestive systems of animals and humans through bioaccumulation.

And that’s a troubling fact that a coalition of students at the University of California–Santa Barbara can’t ignore, so they’re setting out to reduce plastic consumption on their campus altogether.

One of the first initiatives of their chapter of the Plastic Pollution Coalitionis to get the UC–Santa Barbara bookstore to stop using plastic bags to the tune of 6,000 a month, according to Alyssa Hall,  the outreach coordinator and co-chair of the UC coalition.

“We’re going to have sit-down meetings with [the UC Governance Board] and show them that it’s really, it’s a lot easier than they think that it is, and it’s a lot less painful than they think that it’s going to be,” Hall, a junior environmental studies major, told Campus Progress, referring to the switch away from plastics.

The coalition’s longer term goal is the elimination of most types of disposable plastics in use on the campus, moving forward each year by targeting a new type of plastic.

UC–Santa Barbara is the pilot project for the Plastic Free Campuses campaign, whichlaunched in January. The UC coalition was formed in late 2011 after on-campus environmental organizations were approached by the global nonprofit Plastic Pollution Coalition, which thought the school would be a good fit because many of the environmental organizations were already focusing on raising awareness about plastics.

The focus on plastics at UC–Santa Barbara started after a number of students read Moby Duck—a book chronicling the accidental dumping of tens of thousands of bath toys into the ocean and the impact on the ducks—through a campus-wide reading program. One student at UC–Santa Barbara created a giant rubber duck (too large for most baths) out of plastic trash collected from beaches.

“That kind of disposable lifestyle is something that is really relatively recent over the past 60 or 70 years that plastic has been truly abundant,” said Ben Bezark, the program manager for the Plastic Free Campuses campaign. “Rethinking our lifestyles a little bit to get away from that disposable attitude towards just about everything that we use now is pretty achievable and there are some different alternatives that are being adopted.”

Bezark said those alternatives can be as simple as schools installing hydration stations, which differ from regular water fountains in that they are designed for the use of reusable containers instead of drinking directly from the fountain.

UC–Santa Barbara has seven buildings that are Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified, the standard for eco-friendly buildings used by the government, as well as solar panels scattered throughout the campus. The dining commons use a farm-share program to serve locally produced organic foods, and that food-waste is composted.

If the campus were to go entirely plastic free, it would be the first of its kind to make the move.

“We think [the campaign] is going to spread very far,” Hall said. “If students really want it on their campus than that’s really going to be the driving force behind it.”

The coalition members at UC–Santa Barbara have reached out to universities as far away as Penn State University and Washington University in St. Louis about joining.

“I think that just the timing of this campaign is really awesome,” Hall said. “It’s just, I don’t want to say perfect, but it’s very beneficial because it’s such a hot topic. There’s so much student backing for the issue and we’ve also gotten a really great reaction from most of the staff we’ve come across, which is great.”

The University of California system is widely based on the cooperation of students, and many policy changes have to be approved by the student body.

“It’s an interesting collaboration between the governance of the UC system and the students here,” Hall said. “It’s really interesting that students have such a big say, and it really seems like the students really want this so I feel like the governance really has no other option other than to help us make that change.”

The link between fossil fuels (like oil) and the petroleum products (like plastics) derived from it is not readily apparent to many Americans. With the continued environmental degradation of ecosystems across the planet, a youth movement against both fossil fuels and their derivatives strengthens a vision of an environmentally sound future that many young Americans can organize around.

And that’s sustainable campus progress.

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