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Students Working To Eliminate Use Of Plastic Bags

by on April 05, 2014 6:00 AM

Paper or plastic? How about none at all?

A team of Penn State students is working on a campaign to help the university eliminate the use of plastic bags at campus convenience stores.

Sarina Katz, president of Eco Action, is leading the charge.

"I've always sort of just had a passion for the environment," says Katz. "When I was little, my mom would take me - we didn't have recycling bins by our house back then - to the local recycling centers, so it's always been ingrained. You don't put that in the garbage can - you save it and recycle it at some point."

Katz doesn't have exact figures on Penn State's plastic bag consumption, but calls the sheer number "insane." 

As a result, Eco Action developed a long term, three-step approach to effectively eliminate the usage of plastic bags.

First, promote recycling awareness through posters and flyers, asking students to recycle plastic bags in their dorms and residence halls. Second, learn more about plastic bag policy by speaking to convenience store workers. Third, encourage the use of reusable bags or totes, similar to the ones offered at Target or Trader Joe's.

Katz says her group has encountered a number of issues related to plastic bag usage on campus. After talking to on-campus employees, Eco Action found that very few workers knew their store's policy on plastic bags, and were often handing out bags to students when they weren't supposed to. In addition, many students were unaware that reusable bags are available for purchase.

To fix these issues, Eco Action is calling for a more stringent policy to prevent convenience store employees from handing out extra plastic bags, as well as providing incoming freshman with reusable bags.

The biggest challenge remaining, Katz says, is finding a way to convince people that excessive bag usage and waste has a negative effect on the environment

According to the Clean Air Council, an advocacy group dedicated to environmental causes, Americans use approximately 102 billion plastic bags each year, creating tons of landfill waste. Less than one percent of plastic bags are recycled.

"How do you encourage people to change their habits?," says Katz. "In regards to that, it's really hard. How do you convince somebody that this is better than what you're doing now?"

At the end of the semester, Eco Action will give a presentation to representatives from university administration summarizing their findings and offering recommendations for change.

If the campaign is successful, there's a good chance the program will spread to the Borough of State College. Mayor Elizabeth Goreham visited with Eco Action, and said she is "on board" with reducing plastic bag consumption.

In 1972, Eco Action became Penn State's first environmental organization, with the goal of achieving an ultimately sustainable university. Each semester, a group of students create and work together on two to three environmental campaigns that promise positive environmental change.

Past campaigns include "Quit Coal," an effort to convince Penn State's administration to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy in power plants, and an Environmental Bill of Rights, which effectively banned natural gas drilling within State College boundaries.

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C.J. Doon is a frequent contributor to Onward State and is a former intern. A Long Island native, Doon is studying print journalism at Penn State.
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