Is it time to bag all these bags?
WSCU student initiative takes aim at reducing use of plastics locally
Times Staff Writer
Originally published 2013-04-18
A world-wide movement to quash society’s excessive reliance upon single-use plastic bags is about to float its way onto the doorstep of the greater Gunnison community.
Western State Colorado University (WSCU) students in Paul Tame’s “Inquiry into Sustainability” course have made massive headway this semester in an effort to mitigate the use of plastics in campus life. Those students are now turning their attention to how similar changes could be introduced into the communities of the Gunnison Valley.
“We didn’t really expect our school to be this far ahead at this point in the project,” said Justin Santorno, a WSCU sophomore who is the spokesperson for the effort. “Now we can break some ground by talking about the subject with leaders of our local communities and see where we can go from here.”
According to Tame, Recreation and Outdoor Education (ROE) students have been tackling similar projects in the class since it was created about seven years ago. A campus greenhouse has been erected, local businesses have undergone sustainable make-overs and book stores have invested in e-readers, just to name a few of the past student-driven initiatives.
But the effort to ban single-use plastic bags in Gunnison is the first project that could put students at the center of what’s proven to be a contentious environmental issue in other cities and countries across the world.
“Originally, we ran the course like a theory-based class, using models,” said Tame. “It resonated with students, but didn’t really have an impact. Then we started throwing projects like this into the mix and suddenly (there was a significant spike) in terms of student involvement and passion for what they were doing.”
The idea for a city-wide ban on plastic bags originated in the class prior to this semester. That’s when Tame was made aware of the documentary film “Bag It,” which provides an in-depth look at the bags and their impediment to creating environmentally sound and sustainable societies.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, somewhere between 500 billion and one trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year. That results in about 3.5 million tons of plastic bags that reach landfills each year.
The National Marine Debris Monitoring Program estimates that plastic bags account for more than 10 percent of the debris that washes up onto U.S. coastlines.
Taking heed to such alarming statistics, Santorno and the 27 other members of the “Inquiry into Sustainability” class began mounting their plan of attack. That began by circulating a petition and bringing the idea before the Student Government Association (SGA) and WSCU’s Sustainability Action Committee (SAC).
More than 300 people from across campus signed the petition before it reached the SGA, which approved supporting the initiative on campus by consensus. According to SAC chair Brooke Moran, who trades off teaching the class with Tame, the effort aligned perfectly with the “President’s Climate Commitment,” which was signed by WSCU President Jay Helman back in 2007.
The commitment states, in short, that WSCU will cut back on its emissions by at least 20 percent by the year 2020.
“While we’ve been cutting back on emissions, we’ve also been adding on a lot of square footage across campus in recent years,” said Moran.
Mitigating the use of plastics on campus has been a much easier task than the one the group faces in an attempted city-wide ban, or tax, of plastic bags. According to Santorno, the campus bookstore was quick to exchange the use of plastic bags for reusable ones, but plastic bottles sold in vending machines across campus still present a speedbump for the effort.
“Single use plastic bottles are more of a suggestion at this point,” said Santorno. “I think that once it becomes the popular choice, we’ll see it begin to happen automatically.”
The idea to ban, or tax, the use of plastic bags has caught on like wildfire recent years. Ireland and China have both put an outright ban on their use, while U.S. cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Aspen and Breckenridge have either done the same, or instated a small tax on their use.
As for the potential for similar measures to be instated in Gunnison, the group is in the initial phase of conversations with community and business leaders.
As of Tuesday, more than 600 community members have signed the group’s petition. On Wednesday, Santorno and Moran were scheduled to meet with city managers from across the Gunnison Valley, as well as representatives from local environmental advocacy groups.
“The big message that we’re trying to get out there is that micro changes lead to macro changes,” said Santorno. “If you change 10 percent of your lifestyle to be more sustainable and everyone does that, it will create a massive change across the board.”
Santorno said that a great opportunity to learn more about this effort will take place on Monday, April 22. The group will be screening the movie “Bag It” at the South Ballroom of the University Center at WSCU, from 7-9 p.m., in honor of Earth Day.
Michelle Hill, the director of “Bag It,” will also be in attendance to lead a discussion about how the effort has been carried out in the U.S. and across the world.
The screening is open to the public and entry is a suggested donation of $2.
“I really think that if anyone in the community really takes advantage and goes to see the film and speak with the director, it will change their perspective on us as being a disposable society,” said Santorno. “A ban on plastic bags is just one small step.”
For more information about the event, contact Chris Formichella at email@example.com.
(Matt Smith can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)