BYU students, faculty share tips to reduce plastic waste, be ‘better stewards’

Full-time and student staff crush bottles and cans, and then bale them into large cubes. (Kaylyn Wolf)

Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and BYU forum speakers Paul Cox and Katharine Heyhoe each spoke in recent months concerning the planet and the duty of each person to be a steward over its protection.

BYU Plant and Wildlife Sciences professor Ben Abbott is encouraging students to fulfill this duty by reducing their own plastic footprint.

“Plastics are what we call an emerging pollutant,” Abbott said. “It’s a new substance that humans have created that is impacting soils and water and atmosphere.”

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates the total amount of plastic waste in the United States to be 44 million metric tons. They said scientists estimate “there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the ocean by 2050.”

Abbott said this waste buildup comes from a society that encourages a disposable culture, turning high-value resources into waste. “That is a really harmful way of running the economy, and plastics are central to that,” Abbott said.

He compared the United States to Taiwan, which used to have some of the worst plastic pollution in the world until they implemented effective pollution control measures. “They’ve made it inconvenient to do the wrong thing, and convenient to do the right thing,” Abbott said.

BYU runs a robust recycling program to make reducing plastic waste convenient for its students. “Anytime you see a collection bin, that’s managed by our own physical facilities,” Bremen Leak, associate director of the sustainability office, said.

Leak said that the sustainability office’s tagline is “we are stewards.” Their website focuses on earthly stewardship, defining sustainability as meeting today’s needs without compromising future generations and their needs.

Leak said individuals need to normalize sustainable patterns and behaviors. “It’s weird that you have to be weird to be sustainable,” Leak said.

He urged students to be involved in BYU’s efforts toward sustainability by rinsing out chocolate milk bottles before recycling and letting the administration know where BYU can do better.

Besides utilizing the recycling bins, Leak recommended that students find reusable alternatives to single-use plastics, such as glass, bamboo or beeswax.

He also said shopping locally reduces plastic waste connected with shipping, and thrifting clothes can reduce packaging waste while also being budget-friendly.

“Sometimes buying a cool used sweater at DI or Savers is a lot cheaper than buying one new, and it gives you a vintage, original look,” Leak said.

Abbott also gave tips for students looking to reduce their plastic footprint. “There are so many things that we can do that don’t cost money,” Abbott said. “In fact, many of them save money.”

He recited three common rules for living sustainably: (1) reduce, (2) reuse and (3) recycle.

“That sounds trite, but those are actually three very helpful rules, and they’re put in order of importance,” Abbott said.

Abbott said students can reduce their plastic consumption by simply having their own stuff. He gave the example of bringing a reusable plate and utensils to a ward activity. He said he has seen entire wards change the way they run events after seeing a student’s sustainable example.

“Just one person making an individual choice has an influence on a much larger group,” Abbott said.

His other tip was to push for policy changes at the state and city levels.

“One of the most effective things we can do as an individual is lobby our elected officials,” Abbott said.

Abbott said the Utah legislature passed a law to prevent cities from banning single-use plastics. He urged students to find their officials, express concerns about our disposable economy, and encourage them to repeal the law.

Jansen Nipko is a senior in environmental science and sustainability and in the presidency of the environmental science club. He said people do not need to completely eliminate plastics, they just need to be more intentional and use them longer. He recommended reusing lunchmeat containers for sandwiches.

“You don’t have to be a tree-hugging, bicycle-riding vegan to make a difference,” Nipko said. “There are little shifts.”

Alex Long is also a senior in environmental science and sustainability. He suggested learning about the resources offered around us, like BYU’s free-access compost bin near Kiwanis Park, or Provo city’s recycling programs.

He also uses affordable reusable plastic bags for snacks and reusable grocery bags at the store. “It feels good to come home and not have to throw away all the stuff,” Long said.

Whitney Kingsolver, a junior in environmental science and sustainability who works at BYU sustainability, encouraged students to pack a lunch for campus if possible to help the Cougareat reduce waste.

She also said to buy fresh produce instead of the pre-cut options wrapped in plastic. “All produce is wrapped up naturally with skins and peels,” Kingsolver said.

Kingsolver said it is not practical to cut out every plastic thing. “I’m an imperfect environmentalist 100%, but every little thing you do counts.”

Long said the important thing is to be intentional and to think about the consequences. He said a small act of reducing plastic does something to our character.

“Your personal decisions matter in the sense that they help create who you are and the perspective you have on the world,” Nipko said.

Deciding not to use a single-use plastic bottle is not going to stop the ice caps from melting, he said, but the act changes him, and as more people change, our society shifts.

“The environment matters to you whether you like it or not,” Nipko said. “Inherent in who we are is a tie back to the natural world.”

Ben Abbott referred to the first ecological law: everything is connected to everything else. Overconsumption of fossil fuels drives air pollution, climate change and a surplus of plastics. But this connection, Abbott said, also works in the positive sense.

“When you make a positive change in one area, it ripples out through the system and affects everything for the better,” Abbott said. “It’s also going to bring you an added measure of peace and happiness as you bring your life into alignment with these natural ecological laws, which are, of course, God’s laws.”

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