Students at UNC Chapel Hill look to citizens to think sustainably and hold corporations accountable

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There’s no doubt that, unfortunately, the overconsumption of plastics has triggered many environmental and social injustices. Plastics are inevitable in our fast paced lives and consumerist society. Convenience is prioritized over long term consequences, and plastics are a major tool that empowers convenience. Plastic packaging materials make life really easy since they are reliable, cheap, and instead of cleaning a reusable item and storing it, you can simply throw them away. However, our constant reliance on plastics has contributed to more harm than good.

A plastic item that may exist in our lives for a short period of time before being disposed of or thrown in the recycling bin actually persists on our planet for an unforeseeable amount of time. Moreover, only 9% of plastics that are thrown in recycling bins actually end up getting recycled, the rest head to landfills and eventually, the oceans. Plastic pollution wreaks havoc on wildlife by contaminating their ecosystems and creating hazards that can lead to choking, poisoning, and trapping animals.

Currently, the Pacific Garbage Patch is double the size of Texas and other patches of floating trash, mainly plastic waste, are growing. Looking at it from a statistical approach, the rate at which plastic pollution is growing in the oceans leads to a harrowing prediction that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish, harming food supply and delicate ocean ecosystems. Additionally, plastics have an impact on humans too, as researchers have discovered that the average person consumes five grams of microplastics per week, which is about the weight of a credit card. This problem starts with the ultimate culprits of the problem – us. That’s why NCPIRG’s Break Free From Plastic campaign prioritizes the highly overlooked issue of plastic usage.

UNC Chapel Hill’s chapter of the NC Public Interest Research Group (NCPIRG) Campus Action, a non-partisan activist group, is working on a Campus Sustainability Project that is aimed at reducing the University’s single-use plastic usage and plastic waste. As a part of this campaign, the organization conducted a brand audit where members picked up litter around campus or their local communities. The members then catalogued the trash they picked up and noted the type of plastic and the brand that made the product. The brand audit allows UNC’s NCPIRG Campus Action club to find out which companies are the main enablers of creating more plastic waste so that these brands can be targeted and held accountable. Moreover, figuring out what kind of plastic waste is more prevalent and where it is coming from allows for the creation of direct solutions such as recommending biodegradable food packaging, or bring your own reusable containers programs to nearby businesses. The brand audit also re-emphasizes the need for innovation in reusable or biodegradable packaging materials to mitigate the damage from plastics. 

A typical brand audit receives around 60-70 responses within the week, with a total of about 100 items being recorded. However, this semester’s brand audit saw an increase in both categories. Students at NCPIRG from all over North Carolina participated, and together they accounted for 97 responses, in which they found 171 units of trash left out in the open. The spike in trash this semester compared to last semester was already a cause for concern.

Many individuals that participated in NCPIRG’s brand audit collected pretty intriguing items. Students found an array of bottles, wrappers, food containers and bowls, all made of varying types of plastic. In total, 78.4% of the items audited were made out of some form of plastic. The majority of the other findings were items primarily utilized for recreation, such as cigarette butts and liquor bottles.

Various amounts of waste were analyzed by its type of material and description, ranging from bottles to cigarettes. According to our data, about 82% of garbage gathered were food packaging materials, such as bottles, foam, wrappers, chip bags, cups, and straws. Accordingly, about 44% of plastic accumulated were clear or tinted drink bottles or containers. Our catalog includes many responses, capitalizing on naming corporations that contributed significantly to plastic pollution.

While the items came from many different companies, the data showed a pattern in the end. Many of the items thrown away came from restaurants or food in general. Corporations such as Starbucks, McDonald’s, Dunkin, etc, saw their cups and food wrappers tossed on the side of the road. Other corporations such as Coca-Cola, Nestle, and Mondelez International also had their share of snack wrappers littered  across North Carolina. 

When inspecting our research, we take the impacts of COVID-19 and involved corporations into eminent consideration. We gathered that due to COVID, many companies and restaurants had maximized their plastic utilization. We attribute this to more individuals purchasing more take-out food and products due to the heightened instance of delivery orders and all these disposal containers’ snowballing. As an effect, this increases the opportunity for plastics to be misplaced and littered (hence why some corporations have more litter than others).

While many of these companies depend on single-use products as their go-to solution, there is a lack of emphasis on reducing food packaging, which is as unfortunate as it sounds. With basic littering being the main offender, we recognize that we are the concluding modifiers as humans. As responsible beings, we’re fully capable of altering the unsustainable methods we’ve been relying on overtime. 

It is important that we not only clean up our environment, but also we should be more cautious of the trash we leave behind. Try to hold on to trash until you find a trash can or recycling bin. When ordering take-out, let the restaurant know that you don’t need plastic silverware. Reuse plastic containers to bring your lunch to work. Find new DIY projects to reuse trash such as decorating plastic tubs as planters or office supply holders.

Along with this, companies must be more conscious of their packaging materials, as consumers can only purchase what is offered. If the companies switch to sustainable packaging (i.e. paper bags and take-out boxes), we would not find plastic in our environment to the degree we currently see. Is it really necessary to wrap every box in plastic wrap?

While we use each piece of plastic for only a couple minutes, it impacts the environment for hundreds of years. If we want to continue to enjoy eating seafood and seeing beautiful, clean beaches, this plastic pollution must stop.

The Campus Sustainability Project (CSP), part of a national Student PIRG campaign to Break Free from Plastics, is working to end the consumption of single-use plastics and replace them with sustainable options. With our work so far, UNC Chapel Hill dining halls have shifted to reusable take-out boxes, but there is far more work to do. We are still using plastic utensils, coffee cups, plastic bags, and straws, but all of these convenient but detrimental options have sustainable swaps.

Join NCPIRG Campus Action in fighting plastic pollution. Sign our petition, volunteer with us, or simply share our message. No matter how big or small your contribution is, it will help the world break free from plastics.