Students Drive Campus Switch From Plastic Bags

If you need a bag at an NC State campus convenience store or dining location, it will be paper — not plastic — because of a three-year, student-driven effort to reduce the university’s landfill waste.

A partnership between the NC State Stewards, a group of student sustainability leaders, and Campus Enterprises, which operates NC State Dining and convenience stores, resulted in the switch to paper bags, which are biodegradable, more easily recycled and made of a renewable resource.

Plastic bags formerly available in the Atrium, a popular campus food court, were replaced with paper bags — a more sustainable and recyclable option — in January 2016.

After removing plastic bags in the popular Atrium food court in January, Campus Enterprises also replaced plastic bags with paper bags in its six campus convenience stores in April — fittingly, just prior to Earth Day.

“This was a great opportunity for Campus Enterprises to help the entire campus community in achieving the goal of becoming one of the most sustainable campuses,” said Chris Dunham, NC State Dining’s sustainability and nutrition specialist.

NC State Stewards’ Waste Reduction Committee applies plastic bag recycling bin labels to repurposed bins, which were place in campus convenience stores. This student-led effort is the university’s first plastic bag recycling program.

The Stewards first approached Campus Enterprises about removing plastic bags in 2013. To demonstrate campus support for the switch, the Stewards created a “Reduce the Use” pledge that obtained more than 1,100 signatures, developed educational presentations and materials to inform students about the environmental impact of plastic bags, and launched a plastic bag recycling program in campus convenience stores that collected 6,000 bags in the first year alone.

“This data helped gain support from administration by showing that students care about the cause,” said Annie Lopez, who leads the Stewards’ waste reduction committee.

With Campus Enterprises’ support, the Stewards developed a plan for gradually phasing out campus use of plastic bags. As the largest university in the state, the change to paper bags results in thousands less plastic bags going to landfills every month.

“The change to paper bags has an immediate environmental impact. Paper bags are recycled up to five times as often as plastic bags, create less waste and biodegrade quicker whereas plastic bags are made from petroleum and last about 1,000 years in a landfill,” Lopez said.

With plastic bags out, the Stewards have shifted their focus to outreach and education about the benefits of reusable bags, which Campus Enterprises has made available for purchase at cost in all retail locations.

NC State Chief Sustainability Officer Jack Colby, left, presents the 2016 Green Brick Award for Innovation/Impact to members of the NC State Stewards’ waste reduction committee, including (left to right) Amelia Fujikawa, Annie Lopez, Carlo Zanelli and Nick Loschin.

“The ultimate goal is to have a large portion of NC State declining to use any single-use bag in favor of a reusable bag, backpack or even simply using one’s hands,” Lopez said. “We want NC State students, faculty, staff and visitors to be mindful of how much material they are throwing away every day and take conscious steps to reduce that amount.”

The Stewards’ efforts to remove plastic bags resulted in two NC State Green Brick Awards — in the Innovation Impact category and in the Student category for Lopez, who now leads the Stewards as its student coordinator.

In 2016, the Stewards also earned the Organization Award at the 2016 City of Raleigh Environmental Awards, the Organization of Distinction Award at the NC State L.E.A.D. Awards, and a prize in the National Association of College Auxiliary Services Student Author Contest for their entry about campus waste reduction.