College Students Fight Climate Change by Fighting Plastic
When Amanda Sun entered her freshman year at Dartmouth College, she often grabbed meals to go — but she never left the dining hall with a single-use plastic takeout container.
Instead, the class of 2024 computer science major had her takeout orders packaged in reusable containers thanks to the efforts of previous Dartmouth students who created a robust program to replace single-use plastics with reusable containers on the Hanover, New Hampshire, campus.
“Given the exposure we have to dining halls on a day-to-day basis, the food industry being a big source of waste, and climate being a concerning topic for our generation … there is a lot of interest in making a difference,” says Sun.
Sun, 21, who grew up washing sandwich bags, reusing plastic bags and storing leftover in recycled margarine containers, was inspired by the reusables program at Dartmouth and wanted to expand the initiative to other campuses.
In 2020, she launched Green2Go, a service that helps schools start their own reusable container programs.
The concept is simple: For a one-time fee, students receive a Green2Go carabiner clip that can be exchanged for a reusable container in participating dining halls; return the container and receive another carabiner that can be used again and again.
Through Green2Go, Sun hopes to shift all food service operations in the United States to zero waste.
It’s an ambitious and urgent goal — and one that students feel inspired to tackle. Research shows that 39 percent of students cite plastic waste as the second biggest global issue behind climate change. The concerns are warranted.
Global plastic production tops 300 million tons per year and almost half of the water bottles, cups, packaging and other single-use plastics that are produced end up in the ocean. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the issue, increasing demand for single-use plastics, including disposable food packaging, with some studies estimating that it created an additional eight million tons of pandemic-associated plastic waste.
“My generation is going to have to deal with the worst impacts of environmental degradation,” says Alex Gordon, a political science and environmental studies major at Eckerd College and program coordinator for Florida Public Interest Research Group Campus Action. “We know that it’s a problem and know that there is a solution and we want to do something.”
Earning an A for Impact
Student activism isn’t new, according to Jenn Engstrom, state director for California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG), a statewide, student-directed public interest organization.
“Most big social movements from the Civil Rights Movement to the modern environmental movement have been driven by young people,” Engstrom says. “Right now, we’re in a plastic crisis [and] students are really concerned with all of the plastic that is ending up in their environment and what that means for the planet and their futures.”
Youth climate activists are engaged, passionate and worried. By 2030, an estimated 60 percent of those living in cities, which account for up to 80 percent of global energy consumption and up to 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, will be under the age of 18.
Generation Z is well-versed in the realities of climate change and concerned about their futures. In one study, a whopping 65 percent of youth admitted to thinking about climate change “all the time.”
Concerns about climate change led to widespread participation in school strikes for climate action in 2018 and 2019 with an estimated 1.4 million students participating around the world. Social media has helped build engagement and reach global audiences, showcasing youth as “agents of change in the global climate change arena.”
Organizations like the Sunrise Movement have been at the forefront of the efforts to engage youth in climate change activism. Their efforts to “[build] an army of young people to make climate change an urgent priority,” have led to climate debate sit-ins at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, a Road to a New Green Deal Tour and Nationwide #HeatWeek awareness campaigns.
Some groups, like the Sunrise Movement, focus on all aspects of climate change, while others, like the Post-Landfill Action Network — a student-led coalition of 75 member campuses — are focused specifically on reducing waste. For some, they drill down even further, addressing a specific contributor to climate change: single-use plastics.
“Working on plastics pollution is a much more digestible way to get involved in the climate movement,” says Gordon. “Talking about climate change makes it feel like we have to change everything immediately and plastic is something really tangible … that you know is going to make a really big difference [and] we’re still doing work that is contributing to the broader issue [of climate change].”
In the US, the plastics industry is responsible for an estimated 232 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2e) gas per year — equivalent to 116 coal-fired plants —and less than nine percent of plastic waste is recycled.
Single-use plastics might be durable and cheap, but they originate from fossil fuels and break down into microplastics that have negative impacts on marine ecosystems and human health. Students are stepping in to demand (and create) change.
“We’re running out of time to stop climate change,” Sun says.
Students at the University of Southern California successfully petitioned to have plastic straws removed from dining halls; the student-led Plastic Free Emory Project spearheaded plastics reduction strategies across two campuses; and students successfully lobbied to have single-use plastics phased out across the entire University of California system by 2030.
Engstrom believes that student efforts to convince the University of California, one of the largest university systems in the country, to commit to phasing out single-use plastics is a testament to the power of student activism and has the power to make a significant dent in the plastics pollution problem.
“This is the largest and most diverse generation alive right now,” she adds. “They have the numbers behind them and they have a lot of passion and idealism; they are a force to reckon with and can really have an impact.”
Gordon has witnessed the impact students can have on the plastic pollution crisis. She was instrumental in getting Eckerd College to sign the Break Free From Plastic Pledge (BFFP) and commit to the immediate elimination of all single-use, disposable plastics on campus. (The BFFP member organizations have engaged more than 3,000 schools in efforts to reduce single-use plastics).
“Working on plastic pollution feels much more digestible than working on climate change,” Gordon says. “In plastics pollution and other environmental movements, young people are going to be big players.”
“We’re not in control of [how colleges spend their money] but we can show universities what we’re looking for in a college experience."
Students Shifting Spending
While students might not control the purse strings at universities, their demands are impacting decisions within the administrations.
A 2020 Princeton Review survey found that 66 percent of high school seniors and their parents reported that information about a college’s commitment to the environment would affect decisions about where to apply to and attend college.
“We’re not in control of [how colleges spend their money] but we can show universities what we’re looking for in a college experience,” says Gordon.
Sending the message that eliminating single-use plastics on campus is a top priority for students can affect budget decisions.
“College campuses are huge powerhouses and we can use that purchasing power to redirect it away from industries that we don’t think are doing a good job — like the plastics industry,” Gordon adds. “Getting to ban nonessential and single-use plastics on college campuses has a lot of influence. When universities come together and make decisions, it can lead to a lot of people making a lot of change.”
Graduating Beyond Campus
While using stainless steel water bottles, participating in reusable takeout container programs and carrying canvas shopping bags on campuses has an immediate and measurable impact on single-use plastic pollution, the collective efforts of student organizers can have even more power that sometimes reaches beyond campus.
In California, students involved in CALPIRG collected 12,000 signatures and testified in front of the Los Angeles City Council to help pass a resolution banning plastic grocery bags statewide. Four years later, students resumed their lobbying efforts to ensure the plastic bag ban was upheld.
“There is this idealism and energy that is influential to elected officials,” Engstrom says.
Sun is also focused on making a measurable difference.
Green2Go has helped to eliminate 300,000 single-use plastic containers on the Dartmouth campus alone; the student-led organization has grown to include 50 student-led chapters in 30 states and established a goal to mitigate 15 million pieces of plastic waste by the end of 2022.
Sun wants to make an impact off campus, too. Green2Go is focused on transitioning all dining establishments from middle school lunchrooms and corporate cafeterias to restaurants to zero waste — and she thinks student activists can make it happen.
“College students have an important voice politically [and] a lot of climate dialogue at the policy level is being influenced by youth voices,” she says. “With Green2Go, it was one of my goals to have as much influence as possible.”
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Top photo by Thunderstock/Adobe Stock.