Column: GW must enforce ban on single-use plastics from its campus

It’s 11 a.m., and students check the clock as they anxiously await their order at GW Deli, hoping it’ll be ready in time for their lecture in 10 minutes. Many will mindlessly grab a plastic water bottle before racing to class, and luckily for them, Deli has plenty for sale. But approximately 70 percent of those bottles won’t be recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Instead, they’ll spend the next 450 years decomposing in landfills, oceans or roadsides, producing chemical pollution and poisoning wildlife. GW has a plan to eliminate single-use plastics, but their persistent presence on campus proves vendors and the University aren’t committed to sustainability.

In February 2021, then-University President Thomas Leblanc announced an initiative to eliminate single-use plastics for the safety and care of the GW community. A year and a half after his original announcement, it seems that many vendors on and off campus still use single-use plastic products. If GW is serious about protecting the environment, it must bring GWorld vendors in line with its vision and require them to swap single-use plastics for more eco-friendly options.

Fossil fuels are often responsible for the creation of single-use plastics like straws, wrappers, utensils, takeout containers and bags. The plastic production process emits millions of metric tons of greenhouse gasses into the environment, trapping heat in the atmosphere, increasing global temperatures and contributing to climate change. In turn, climate change causes respiratory diseases in humans, decreases the water supply and creates numerous wildfires.

After gaining popularity in the United States in the 1950s as a way to make life more convenient, single-use plastics have done anything but. Today, the amount of plastic produced in a year is roughly equivalent to the weight of the entire global population. Officials’ reluctance to stop the purchase and sale of these products exemplifies their performative activism. Their failure to enforce their own policies will cause more harm to a planet that’s already experiencing increasing temperatures, extreme droughts and rising sea levels.

GW’s original plan seemed promising – the University would eliminate single-use plastics in the community to do its part to help the environment. And during the 2021-22 school year, I noticed that nearly every restaurant on campus took the step to completely replace its plastic straws with either paper or compostable ones made with the plant-based polylactic plastic. A few vendors, like Carvings, replaced their plastic water bottles with “Just Water” – a brand that uses recyclable materials and produces 74 percent fewer carbon emissions than its traditional plastic counterparts, according to its website. I’ve also seen some vendors that have removed all plastic bottles for soda and stocked either glass or aluminum cans in their place.

But this initial push for sustainability hasn’t led to transformative change. The shift to more environmentally friendly straws was a great start, but it was just a start. Many businesses like &pizza, GW Deli and more continue to sell plastic water bottles and soda bottles each day.

The fault is not entirely on these GWorld vendors, 10 of whom told The Hatchet last September that officials never informed them of its new plastic policy. If officials truly cared about their new approach to single-use plastics, they should have taken the time to explain their policy to establishments that accept GWorld. It’s also unclear who has to comply with this policy and how GW will address noncompliance – are officials mandating sustainability or just suggesting it? The University made a bold commitment to ensure the GW community eliminates single-use plastics. Now, officials must own their failure to enforce the new sustainability policies that they so proudly proclaimed.

Some on-campus establishments, like Panera Bread and Starbucks, likely aren’t as capable of making individual decisions about the removal of single-use plastics as part of national chains. But that doesn’t mean GW lacks the power to decide which materials individual businesses use. Many of the vendors violating the policies are operating on University property in places like District House. Due to its location and authority over GW Dining, the administration undoubtedly has the ability to require establishments to follow official policies and regulations, check what materials they are using and require the replacement of any single-use plastics.

The University’s sustainability plan is performative activism – there’s been little action despite officials’ promises to address the persistence of single-use plastics at popular establishments. Many students care deeply about sustainability, and GW’s lack of interest in enforcing its own environmental protection policies is both disheartening and frustrating. Especially after the publication in June 2021 of a detailed, 15-page guide to make GW a more sustainable place, we expected commitment and responsibility from the administration on this issue.

As we move further into the 2022-23 school year, officials need to approach single-use plastics like a ticking time bomb. Amid global climate change, our environment faces irreparable damage each time single-use plastics sold at GW end up in the trash. The time to truly commit to sustainability is now – removing single-use plastics would be a win for our community and our climate.

Grace Erwin, a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions writer.

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