651 steps towards sustainability (and counting)

Julian Nicks

This past Monday, I read a StudLife article (published by Matthew Curtis, titled “Fake sustainability robs students”) criticizing the efforts of Jake Lyonfields, SU’s executive adviser of sustainability, and members of SU’s Green Events Commission to end the distribution of plastic bags on our campus and establish a more sustainable campus bag policy.

Matthew Curtis was concerned that (1) a plastic bag ban would cost students and (2) the Bag Use Reduction Committee (“BURC”) contains primarily individuals seeking to profit from a ban. His concerns are legitimate but are misinformed (something for which we all bear responsibility). I would like to speak to this initiative and its developments.

I’d like to begin by highlighting our reality: disposable bags threaten both the environment and public health, and Wash. U. is distributing 271,000 annually. Last summer Jake Lyonfields and GEC members Orma Ravindranath and Jennifer Chan published a 22-page report profiling Wash. U.’s bag use. It also explains the serious environmental consequences of producing and disposing of the 102-billion plastic bags the U.S. consumes each year.

This report was sent to SU and the administration, along with a request to engage in conversation about eliminating plastic bag distribution on campus. Reception was positive, and by summer’s end BURC was established and tasked with exploring, holistically, how to improve Wash. U.’s current bag policy.

BURC’s 10-person membership includes both administrators and students. An SU Senator, a graduate student representative and Jake Lyonfields all sit on BURC. All value both sustainability and the Wash. U. student experience.

But input regarding students’ experience extends beyond these students. An Office of Campus Life representative sits on BURC, as well as Director of Sustainability Phil Valko and Sustainability Coordinator Will Fischer, both of whom are Wash. U. alumni. The remaining four represent the Campus Store, Bear Necessities, Bon Appétit and Wash. U.’s Purchasing Department. In short, six out of 10 committee members have no interest in simply advancing profits of our campus stores. Together, they’re charged with constructing a sustainable and convenient policy that decreases Wash. U.’s environmental impact.

In particular, this effort is focused on creating an effective policy that reduces waste while ensuring that students are not burdened with huge costs. There are many ways to incentivize environmentally responsible behavior, and BURC is considering all to determine the best policy for Wash. U. For example, one of many options on the table is a model in which those who choose to use disposable bags simply pay for them (rather than spreading the cost of “free” bags across all customer purchases, including those purchases made by individuals who refuse disposable bags).

BURC is not geared towards exploiting students for money, and Student Union certainly doesn’t “[want] to defend and promote” campus business interests “at the expense of [everyone else]” as Mr. Curtis purports. Moreover, BURC has had only one meeting (it convenes monthly and started this month), so no implementation has been decided—making Mr. Curtis’ arguments incorrect and premature.

In his article, Mr. Curtis called upon me and “everyone who has the students’ best interests at heart to oppose its implementation.” One thing I can guarantee is that any plan that doesn’t include cheap and/or free alternatives to plastic bags or that places an unnecessary burden on students will be opposed. Right now we’re simply evaluating options.

We welcome student feedback—in fact, considerable effort has been made to engage Wash. U.’s community. After BURC was established, sophomore Nancy Yang was appointed to direct student engagement efforts. Two StudLife articles have been written, fliers were made and a Facebook page (called “Another Step Towards Sustainability: WashU’s Plastic Bag Ban”) containing links to initiative materials was created. The Student Sustainability Fund will be engaged with the hope of providing free/reduced-price reusable bags to students, and it’s likely that BURC’s final decision will include making cheap, reusable bags available at store locations.

The team has also been circulating a petition (which can be read and signed at www.tinyurl.com/washuplasticbagban) in order to demonstrate the extent of student support for a sustainable campus bag policy to BURC. What’s exciting is that only three weeks into the semester, we’ve already had 651 signatures (that’s nearly 11 percent of the undergraduate student body).

Ultimately, the question with which we’re faced is whether our community will take it upon itself to recognize its responsibility to our planet. Relatively speaking, ours is a small step towards sustainability, but rest assured, taking it couldn’t be more important. 651 students have already taken this step—will you also help us move toward a more sustainable future?

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