Dipped in plastic

By Diana Ramos/El Inde

One small straw is more than a thin tube of plastic: It can make a huge difference on the planet. At the University of Arizona Student Union, many students stop to get coffee, but is it worth spending around $5 for a couple of ice cubes, coffee and cream in a plastic cup with a lid and a straw that contribute to thousands of pounds of plastic trash?

The Cooper Center for Environmental Learning, a program at the UA College of Education, is working to increase ecological understanding at the UA by creating sustainability projects on campus that take on straw use, for example. 

In 2017, the Cooper Center’s outreach team submitted a project called Community Outreach in Environmental Learning to the UA Green Fund, a fund that financially supports sustainability-related projects proposed by any member of the UA community.

Deanna Kulbeth, a woman with long straight caramel hair and intense light blue eyes, got her master’s degree at the UA in Environmental Learning, Sustainability Education, & Water Policy, and is now the project coordinator.

Deanna Kulbeth holding the first round of  the “Skip the straw” flyers. Courtesy photo by Deanna Kulbeth.

Getting rid of plastic all at once wasn’t a realistic goal for Kulbeth and her team. So they decided to start with something small like single-use plastic straws to get people thinking about plastic. Kulbeth and her team joined the Pledge Against Plastic Straws in the 2018 Campus Challenge by Simple Straw, a company that sells reusable straws. The Copper Center outreach team started persuading UA students to sign the petition — but they only got 44 signatures.

“This was a great first attempt to bring attention to the matter,” said Kulbeth via email.

During the summer of 2018, Kulbeth and her team had multiple conversations with Todd Millay, Student Unions director, to inspire him to talk with his team about the amount of plastic being used in their operations.

A year later, Millay, who has a personal interest in sustainability, contacted the Cooper Center’s outreach team to help the Student Union find ways to implement greater measures on campus. While Kulbeth and her team worked in the educational components, Millay provided marketing resources to engage the campus in a campaign against plastic use.

In partnership with the Student Union, The Cooper Center’s outreach team launched two campaigns “Skip the straw” and “Skip the plastic.”

The “Skip the straw” campaign was the first approach to this whole idea of reducing plastic usage on campus to then go bigger with the “Skip the plastic” campaign. 

They set up digital screens, banners and flyers all over at the Student Union. The image of blue bending straws highlights the message written in white color with a red square in the background. One of the messages read: “It is just one straw, said eight billion people,” emphasizing that it has a collective impact.

Neysha Aguilar, Marketing and Communications Manager for the Student Union, explains that with these campaigns, they were trying to inspire people to not use plastic and instead replace it with reusable items like metal straws, water bottles or bags.

Aguilar worked closely with the Cooper Center’s outreach team in creating the signage displayed at the Student Union.

“We started putting [flyers and signs] in front of straw containers. So, people would have to think twice about grabbing a straw,” said Kenzie Jackson, a UA undergraduate student in Natural Resources and a member of the Cooper Center’s outreach team.

The Cooper Center believes that once people connect with nature, it is easier to understand why they should take care of it.

“People start changing their behavior with knowledge then they continue to change their behavior because they care,” Kulbeth said.

Megan Gutierrez, UA undergraduate student in Environmental Studies, states that people don’t understand the educational component of what happens to the planet when they throw trash away.

“Sustainability education is very lacking,” Gutierrez said.

Because kids are more susceptible, Aguilar says that teaching children about how to take care of the environment is essential to change the future of the Earth.

“Education is the number one key to making an impact,” said Aguilar. “We can’t change everybody, but the goal is to expose you so much to that idea that perhaps you adapt.”

The Student Union wanted to reduce straw usage on campus by 50% so they could save $4,000 that they needed to switch to compostable straws. 

According to data given by Aguilar, 532,000 straws were used in 2018 and 480,000 in 2019 for a total decrease of 52,000 straws. The “Skip the straw” campaign reduced the straw usage on campus by 9.7%.

The Student Union was eventually able to introduce composting and recycling items. Nowadays, 60% of products in the Student Union are compostable. Among the compostable items there are grocery bags, bowls and bowl lids, cup carriers, cutlery, napkins, catering plates and more.

The “Skip the plastic” campaign in 2019. Courtesy photo by Neysha Aguilar.

Due to COVID-19, the Student Union took a slight step back in order to follow the new safety protocols that require most of the food to be wrapped in plastic. But they still have reusable straws available for purchase at the BookStore and compostable straws and containers at the Student Union.

“We’re not necessarily stopping and completely ignoring the campaign, we’re just pausing, reflecting on the times,” Aguilar said.

“It was definitely frustrating because we’ve made such great progress,” said Gutierrez. “But we can’t really blame the Green Fund too much, they found some many other great projects.”

With sadness on their faces because of losing their jobs, Gutierrez and Jackson had a pinch of hope for the future of the UA on its way of becoming a greener institution. After the Cooper Center’s outreach team was dissolved, the Office of Sustainability hired Gutierrez and Jackson as Compost Cats, where they are able to work on some sustainable projects.

“Spread sustainability like COVID-19,” Gutierrez said.

In their role as Compost Cats, Gutierrez and Jackson are making compost, which means they’re taking food scraps from landfills then watering them until they turn into a soil substance over time. Compost is very nutritious for plants, helping them to grow faster and better.

Currently, the compost is donated to the UA Community Garden and then the food is donated to UA Campus Pantry.

Aguilar believes that the UA is on the right track to be a more environmentally friendly institution. Currently, there are better signs at the Student Union, which provide a visual representation of what people should throw in the different types of containers.

Gutierrez and Jackson also express hope in how UA is working to be a greener institution. They agree that the world is calling for more environmental consciousness and people are reacting and acting. With the “Skip the straw” campaign, the Cooper Center’s outreach team was able to inform people about how sustainability can help the Earth and how they can become more sustainable individuals.

“Sustainability can be super small, and it just takes that little step by step by step to get a healthier planet,” said Gutierrez, explaining that people can start by using Tupperware, buying from sustainable clothes or thrifting and educating themselves by reading articles about sustainability.

One of the main goals for the “Skip the straw” campaign was to make people aware that they matter as individuals, that they are part of a community living on the same planet.

Although the Cooper Center’s outreach team was disbanded, its old members hope that they have made enough of an impact at the UA campus.

“You are never too small to make a difference … We all have our impact; we all have our mark.” Gutierrez said.

“What you create in this moment in life, it’s what will last for generations to come and you can’t be selfish and think it’s not my problem. It will be my daughters’ problem the actions that I make now in the present. So, I have to think of the future and how it’s going to affect her and those after her,” said Aguilar, who is expecting a girl.