Sometimes the changes you hardly notice are the ones that most need to be made. For about a year now, disposable plastic bags have been banned from Grab It and Bag It, CWRU’s on-the-go lunch locations. Before the bags were taken away, students at these locations consumed an estimated 3,750 plastic bags per week. The simple, yet significant switch from disposable to reusable bags has eliminated this waste of resources while inspiring sustainable behavior change in students.
In 2010, The Student Sustainability Council (SSC) tried to get rid of the plastic bags at Grab It and Bag It for the first time without warning to students. This resulted in numerous complaints from students, so Bon Appetit Management Company decided to return the bags. In 2013, SSC used chalk to put the number “14” all over campus one evening, but didn’t tell anyone what it meant. The following day, SSC revealed the meaning of 14: the average useful lifespan of a plastic bag is 14 minutes. This caught the attention of students, faculty, staff, and community members and resulted in a newspaper article for the school paper. However, much work was still needed to create significant behavior change as students continued to regularly use plastic bags.
Disposable plastic bags have a significant effect on the environment. Plastic grocery bags are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. Plastic production is responsible for 8% of the world’s oil production and over half of plastic produced is used only once and then thrown away. Furthermore, the production of plastic bags contributes to air pollution and habitat destruction. It takes an estimated 1000 years for polyethylene bags to break down and even when they do break down, they do not decompose. Plastic bags only break down into smaller plastic pieces which pollute our soils and water sources (see postconsumers.com). The Student Sustainability Council is working to put an end to this needless consumption of nonrenewable resources and environmental contamination by reducing the use of disposable plastic bags on campus.
Here at CWRU, plastic bags at Grab It and Bag It to-go lunch dining locations once played a part in this worldwide issue. Students who dined at Grab It and Bag It regularly used a bag for only a few minutes before throwing it away in the same room. The senseless use of plastic bags had become automatic to students and dining staff. Our community was choosing convenience over our environment on a daily basis.
After the disappointing end to the effort to ban the bags in 2010, SSC revitalized this project in Fall 2014. The Council knew that in order for the project to be a success, they would need to work more closely with campus dining management and educate students on their ability to make a difference. Over the course of a year, SSC distributed surveys to the student body, created and posted educational signage, beta tested infrastructure changes, actively communicated with Bon Appetit dining services and distributed reusable bags to students.
The surveys were important in gauging how different actions would be received and involving students in the decision to remove the bags. Seventy-nine percent of responders indicated that they were supportive or very supportive of using a reusable bag to carry their lunch if they were provided one and only one percent indicated that they were opposed or very opposed.
Next, SSC conducted observational studies in Bag It and Grab It to see how students were using plastic bags and to assess the viability of various removal strategies. Since the survey responses indicated that students were not always thinking about the action of taking a plastic bag, SSC decided to move the plastic bags from the checkout station to the wall of the eating area. Instead of automatically taking a plastic bag while the dining service worker swiped their card, students would have to walk an extra ten feet if they wanted to carry their lunch in a plastic bag. Students were effectively prompted to ask themselves “do I really need a bag?” Observational studies showed that once the bags were moved only a short distance away, many students chose to forgo the bag altogether.
SSC soon announced an official date for the end of the plastic bags and ran a campaign to inform the students about the change through fliers, chalking, a Facebook event, and a dry-erase board in Grab It which held a countdown until the bags were to be removed. SSC also focused on creating educational signage which detailed the consequences of using disposable plastic bags and made students aware of the positive environmental change they could make on campus by using a reusable bag. In October of 2015, plastic bags were officially removed from Bag It and Grab It.
The results of this project go beyond saving 750 plastic bags from the landfill each day. Students were challenged to reanalyze the automatic action of taking a plastic bag and reconsider the impact of their decisions. Students soon began to consistently remember to bring reusable bags to lunch. This project provided sustainability education to students and created an opportunity for them to initiate lasting behavior change beyond their years spent on campus.
There is still much work to be done with waste reduction and sustainability education on campus. SSC is now working to branch out to more locations on campus and reduce use of materials such as styrofoam plates at L3 and plastic bags at Tomlinson. SSC hopes to continue to work with Bon Appetit Management Company and the CWRU Office For Sustainability to enact further resource conservation efforts on campus by drawing upon experiences from their work at Grab It and Bag It.
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Here's the story from 2015 in The Daily when the bags were banished.
Story provided by SSC.