Karina Ochoa Berkley, a sophomore majoring in political science and philosophy, is the Student Association’s vice president for sustainability and a columnist.
Earlier this month, the University committed to phasing out single-use plastics at its Sustainability Summit. The policy would prohibit GW-affiliated groups from selling single use plastics, according to the announcement. But the release failed to answer a key question: By when will the University phase out single-use plastics?
Following the announcement, several student leaders and groups, including myself as the Student Association vice president for sustainability, Take Back the Tap GW, Sunrise GW, Campaign GW, Green GW, GW Black Defiance Green G.R.E.E.N., the SA Committee on Sustainability and others, signed a letter sent to administrators urging the University to commit to a 2025 deadline for phasing out of single-use plastics. The letter argues that with 2030 as the deadline by which the damage of climate change will become irreversible, the University must commit to phasing out single-use plastics by 2025.
Committing to a sustainable future is the most pressing issue facing this generation. The University must commit to this deadline and follow through on plans to use reusable containers in implementing this policy.
While GW might have been one of the first universities in the country to commit to phasing out single-use plastics, it will surely be one of the last to materialize its implementation without committing to a deadline. Institutions like those of the University of California system have already announced deadlines as early as this calendar year – signaling a serious commitment to rectifying a long overdue issue. This stands out from developments I have witnessed at GW. In my capacity in the SA, I’ve sat in on several meetings during which officials have described plans for the University extending five and even 10 years into the future – other plans, like those for building remodeling or dining operations, extend even farther out. Several, if not all of these plans, foresee the dependence on, sale of and use of single-use plastics. Not committing to a 2025 deadline will almost certainly guarantee that by the time the University eventually phases out single-use plastics, it will be too late.
In addition to committing to a 2025 deadline, the University must explicitly commit to favoring reusable container systems over single-use disposables as it develops plans to implement its promise. According to its waste report in 2016, nearly 90 percent of the University’s waste, making up 3,500 tons, consisted of single-use disposables. Of the 3,500 tons of waste from single use disposables, 1000 tons of this was made up of single-use plastics. So while phasing out single-use plastics is certainly important, the University must also address the rest of its waste problem – the 2,500 tons of trash it produces that isn’t plastic.
As I have previously argued, it is crucial to also consider the environmentally deleterious production process that single-use disposables, not just single-use plastics, are predicated on. Compostable single-use disposables, for example, while they theoretically don’t create post-consumption waste, do require constant resource extraction to produce – this is less so for reusable products that have a longer use-life. To implement the University’s “zero waste and circularity” commitment, the University must not divert to other single-use disposables to replace plastic, but rather implement reusable container systems.
The University must implement these demands in order to build faith in the student community about the seriousness of their commitment to creating a more sustainable campus. Since the letter was sent, we have been in several meetings with officials pressing for the University to commit to this deadline, but we need the help of the student body. They are very close to committing, and we need collective support to push them over the edge. Please support our effort to phase out the use of single-use plastics by 2025 by co-signing our letter, available here.