There’s something unsettling about hearing David Attenborough raise his voice. The usually calm, reverent tone employed by the 91-year-old documentary-maker is among the reasons why so many choose his Netflix-streamed show Blue Planet as a pre-bedtime watch – it’s a kind of televisual night-time narcotic. But when the final episode of Blue Planet 2 aired last December, his stern warning about the dangers of plastics in our oceans awoke many of us from life-long slumbers. We were warned that plastic waste was accumulating rapidly and uncontrollably in our oceans.
The episode prompted debate about plastic in Britain, and social media was suddenly awash with questions asking how so much plastic had been ending up in the sea. Two months later, Prime Minister of the UK Theresa May signed a treaty banning microbeads, tiny balls of plastic used in cosmetics and too small to filter, which were being ingested by fish. In Ireland, similar legislation is being drawn up. But what steps are universities taking?
Many people will be aware of the call for a ban on single-use plastic in Trinity, which is being lobbied for by TCD Plastic Solutions and has been endorsed by Provost Patrick Prendergast. However, Trinity would not be the first university to ban single-use plastic. Other universities around the world have taken concrete steps to reduce plastic consumption, often starting with plastic bottles.
In 2013, the University of Vermont (UVM) introduced a campus-wide ban on the sale of bottled water. The ban, which was implemented after lobbying from both the elected “Student Government” and campaign groups, was unsuccessful in significantly reducing plastic on UVM’s campus. Will Corcoran, Chair of the Environmental Committee of the Student Government at UVM, believes that one of the reasons for this was the continual availability of sparkling water and fizzy drinks in vending machines on campus. Speaking to The University Times, he emphasises that while there is a “culture” on campus where students carry reusable bottles, the availability of these other drinks means plastic use hasn’t been greatly reduced. Corcoran’s point is echoed in a research paper published in 2014 looking specifically into the water ban at Vermont. It found that after the ban was implemented, the amount of plastic entering the waste stream on campus was not reduced, with that having been the goal of the ban. It found that the only significant change on campus was an increase in the sale of unhealthy carbonated drinks. While Corcoran suggests that single-use plastic remains part of the environmental action supported by the university, it is “not the most important issue” and the student government now has other issues in mind, namely divestment.
I think that the bottled water ban fitted into what they were trying to do and the reputation they were trying to keep
The failure of the water-bottle ban to reduce plastic consumption at UVM may indicate a larger problem. Perhaps it is simply not sufficient to ban certain plastics. Other universities that have responded more positively to plastic bans often attribute success to a sustainable “culture” on campus.
In 2009, the University of Winnipeg became the first university in Canada to ban the sale of water bottles on campus. Speaking to The University Times, Laura Elsie Garinger, Student Association President at the University of Winnipeg, says that the ban was consistent with Winnipeg’s “reputation as being more sustainable” as a university. “I think that the bottled water ban fitted into what they were trying to do and the reputation they were trying to keep.”
The Student Association lobbied for the ban alongside a student grassroots group at Winnipeg, which later became known as Ecological People in Action, and the National Federation of Students. The ban itself took a year of campaigning and involved changing the “framework” that existed in the university, such as ensuring that retail locations weren’t selling bottled water on campus, says Garinger. In terms of practical action that often makes a difference, Garinger suggests “bringing reusable mugs or reusable water bottles to class instead of buying a bottle of water. Even if it’s just one step out of their entire day”.
Indeed, an existing sustainable culture on campus appears necessary to implement these measures successfully. Similarly, this kind of environmental awareness can often determine how well new measures are accepted. That appears to have been the case at the University of Hong Kong (HKU).
Speaking to The University Times, Maegan Cowan, a sustainability officer at HKU, says that the issue of plastic pollution is particularly acute in Hong Kong, with over five-million plastic bottles thrown out every day last year. There was a belief around campus that something had to be done, she says. The sustainability office at HKU campaigned for a ban on the sale of disposable water bottles on campus, which was endorsed by senior management at the university. The ban came about as part of a larger campaign at the university called “Ditch Disposable”, which aims to reduce plastic consumption on campus by targeting plastic bottles and other single-use plastics. While the sustainability office led the campaign, Cowan asserts that “students were involved throughout”, and that before the ban was introduced, “a lot of them were already doing zero waste events”. The students’ union at the university was “invaluable in convincing other students” to move their behaviours towards sustainability, she explains. Like many universities, HKU has free water fountains on campus and as part of its drive to reduce consumption of other single-use plastics, the sustainability office is working to provide a rental service of cutlery and plates for use in college canteens. They also offer a tool-kit to help student societies organise and run sustainable events that do not use plastic bottles.
But how does HKU’s progress on sustainability compare with that of the Hong Kong government? A policy recently announced by the government, to be implemented in February 2018, will see all government-run offices and premises ban the sale of water bottles of one litre or less in vending machines. In reference to the HKU ban, Cowan stated “HKU was proud to introduce this type of ban to Hong Kong and we are happy to see that others are doing the same”.
Hong Kong’s success and the echoing of the ban in government policy shows how measures introduced by universities can often inspire action outside of the campus. This potential is highlighted by Richard Thompson, a lecturer in Marine Biology at the University of Plymouth.
Thompson says that universities, which he compares to a “mini-city”, can play an important role in creating “models” of sustainable practice that can then be applied to businesses and organisations in society at large. While he recognises that universities are privileged in the way that measures can be more easily introduced and accepted, these measures “could actually help inform other businesses, other organisations. I think there are lessons that can be learned on campus”.
Banning plastic altogether has been seen by many universities around the world as a first crucial step in reducing the large amount of plastic waste
At the end of 2017, the University of Plymouth banned the use of plastic straws on campus. With 500-million single-use straws currently produced every year, these small objects are having a big impact on the world’s oceans. In the last 25 years, over six-million straws have been recovered from beaches around the world. While Thompson says that using better-recycled materials such as paper can be a more sustainable alternative than plastic straws and cutlery, plastic still has many uses which we do not necessarily have to forego. The solution, Thompson says, is not necessarily banning a particular product but the sustainable management of plastic waste. “Perhaps plastic isn’t single use if it’s designed and used, and then disposed of in such a way that it can be recycled in what I would call a closed loop. [For example], a lemonade bottle, when it’s finished, can become a bottle for a new drink.”
However, banning plastic altogether has been seen by many universities around the world as a first crucial step in reducing the large amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills and our oceans. By banning plastics, many universities have seen a positive response among students who seem to recognise the gravity of the issue. Even in cases where the ban has not had positive results on paper, such as in UVM, bans at the very least create a conversation on campus and raise awareness of sustainable behaviour among students.
Richard Thompson emphasises that there isn’t “a single solution” to the problem. The transition from regarding plastic as disposable to treating it as having a more long-term use will not happen overnight, he says. But he returns to his earlier point: plastic is not necessarily the problem. “It’s about using it responsibly, and I think if we’re prepared to do that then we can have all the benefits of plastic without the impact.”