Paving the way to a plastic-free campus

November 17, 2020

Kira Stoll, Nicole Haynes, and Chancellor ChristPlastic can be found in a majority of items individuals use daily. From snack bags and wrappers, to bottled beverages, straws and to-go containers. 

Now, imagine trying to change the reliance on plastic at a college campus. That’s exactly what Nicole Haynes set out to do.

Through CALPIRG, a statewide, student-directed non-profit organization that works to solve problems facing our society, Haynes and the Berkeley chapter CALPIRG team built support for a Plastic-Free Seas Campaign. What initially started in the fall of 2019 as an effort to get UC Berkeley to take action to address the severe ecological, health, and environmental justice impacts of single-use plastic waste, has now expanded into a policy that includes all 10 UC campuses.    

“It’s incredibly important to keep on pushing the envelope and setting the bar higher and higher,” said Haynes, the former CALPIRG Chapter Chair and Plastic-Free Seas Coordinator. “We are at a really important part in our climate history; we are in a climate crisis and so every step towards a more sustainable future is better.”

The systemwide policy, which was formally announced in August 2020, will phase out single-use plastic bags in retail and dining locations and then eliminate single-use plastic food service items and plastic bottles. 

Each campus will be able to tailor how they implement changes to meet the location-based needs of their food establishments and retail services. UC Berkeley has committed to eliminating all non-essential single-use plastic with viable alternatives by 2030, making it one of the most comprehensive bans of plastic by a higher education institution. Berkeley’s policy also addresses the spectrum of products and packaging used in campus academics, research, administration and events.

“One thing that is really unique about this ban is that it goes beyond other plastic bans,” said Haynes. “We recycle so little of our plastics and even if we did recycle all of our plastics, it's not a great solution. That's our big hope with this initiative.”

In order to ensure the policy’s success on campus, CALPIRG’s Plastic-Free Seas Campaign team needed to secure support from the full campus community. Based on her work on other zero waste project’s, Haynes immediately knew that a “lack of buy-in from campus groups could delay or halt'' their initiative. 

“We needed to get as much support as possible, but we really focused [on] and prioritized those challenge areas that we knew if we didn't have their support, it most likely wouldn't be successful,” said Haynes. 

The team secured support from various campus stakeholder groups, including students, staff, faculty and vice chancellors. The students also met with multiple departments, including Cal Dining; Athletics; Events & Conferences; independent campus cafes and retailers such as Amazon and the Cal Student Store; and University Business Partnership & Services (UBPS), who oversees campuswide partnerships and sponsorships.

“We wanted to get UBPS’ support because we are really pushing for upstream solutions and redesign,” said Haynes. “We are really hoping that campus partners like Peet’s or Bank of the West don’t just change their products or services they provide on our campus. We hope this creates a chain reaction that really helps with the larger packaging and product problem.” 

“We look forward to engaging our partners to find creative and effective ways to help the campus eliminate single-use plastic,” said Amy Gardner, UBPS Executive Director. “By working together, we demonstrate the power that collaboration between UC Berkeley and business partners has to institute positive change.”

Haynes acknowledged the change would be a big commitment and explained the key to success was ensuring campus groups, retailers and partners understood the policy and roadmap.“We will have a lot of different stakeholders [involved] who will hopefully be keeping their eye on this commitment and keep working towards it,” said Haynes. “When the university works together, it becomes a better campus for everyone.”