Building upon the past decade of sustainability progress, George Washington University will implement a plan to ultimately eliminate single-use plastics.
The plan applies to vending, events, dining, departmental purchases and retail partners, President Thomas LeBlanc said Thursday, and includes items such as water bottles, cutlery, wrappers and event takeaways in the future.
Dr. LeBlanc said he also will issue a single use plastics policy as part of a larger effort to address zero waste and circularity —a leading sustainability concept that seeks to separate economic activity from the consumption of finite resources to prevent waste and pollution, keep items and materials in use and regenerate natural systems.
"The George Washington University is deeply committed to embedding sustainability into our teaching, research and operations," Dr. LeBlanc said. "Whether through our investments, solar energy use or this latest step to eliminate single-use plastics, our community of students, faculty and staff is leading the bold, decisive actions that demonstrate our university's leadership as a model of sustainable excellence and create a more sustainable world."
GW students and leadership have been engaged in dialogue around the single-use plastics issue since 2019. In response to calls to action from GW students, Mark Diaz, executive vice president and chief financial officer, convened a Single-Use Plastics Task Force in September 2020 to build a comprehensive plan to eliminate single-use plastics within university operations.
The goal was to evaluate means of doing business better while contributing to meeting the sustainability commitments that the Board of Trustees’ Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Responsibility Task Force made in June 2020. The Single-Use Plastics Task Force evaluated the primary sources of single-use plastics at the university to be vending, events, dining, departmental purchases and retail partners, and prioritized those sources in its recommendation for eliminating single-use plastics.
“I believe eliminating single-use plastics is a transformative and industry leading initiative,” Mr. Diaz said. “Such a change has broad, positive implications for our university's sustainability efforts and for doing business better.”
The Single-Use Plastics Task Force engaged the Take Back the Tap (TBTT) student organization, and this university commitment is aligned with the student group’s priority initiatives. The GW Student Association also passed a resolution in October 2020 to “promote sustainability by reducing and eventually eliminating single-use plastic water bottles across campus.”
Kat Ruane, a junior studying political science and environmental studies who serves as co-president for TBTT, said that it is encouraging to see university leadership respond to student concerns. She said that she looks forward to seeing progress on the university commitment before she graduates.
“We found the reception from the university administration very positive and encouraging—that they were eager to listen to us and kind of get our input on the situation,” Ms. Ruane said. “This is not the end, and I know our organization plans to keep pushing to actually see what the implementation looks like, how that's done and that it's done equitably.”
There are four scopes in the university’s plan to eliminate single-use plastics, and they will address single-use plastic choices within GW’s control as well as choices from members of the university community:
1: Campus operations
The university has already begun to addresses the single-use plastics under the control of centralized units in campus operations. This scope prioritizes plastic beverage bottles by:
- Providing the next incoming class of GW students with a reusable beverage bottle or reusable serviceware for meals on the go.
- Expanding water bottle refill stations in outdoor locations and to all residence halls.
- Replacing and retrofitting plastic bottle vending machines with can vending machines (aluminum cans can be recycled indefinitely, unlike plastic).
2: GW community purchases and business partners
Also beginning immediately, the university will issue a policy to prohibit purchases of single use plastics related to beverage bottles, meal serviceware, wrappers and giveaways by departments across the university, student groups and guests. The university will work with business partners who operate on or near campus to encourage them to offer alternatives to single use plastics. Some of the steps in this scope include:
- Make in-line water systems available for lease and purchase by campus departments, schools and offices.
- Engage top suppliers on alternatives to single-use plastic products and products that address circularity and zero waste generally.
- Determine alternative solutions to water bottles in emergency provisions, as well as for athletic, fundraising and other large-scale events.
- Identify ways to support other events that students, departments, schools and visitors host to avoid single-use plastics, such as a Green Event Guide and other resources.
- Eliminate single-use plastics in future pouring rights and campus dining contracts.
3: Engagement and lifestyle Choices
This scope involves all members of the GW community and requires everyone to make adjustments to daily life and choose reusable items over single-use plastics. When the university returns to on-campus learning again, GW will invite students, faculty, staff, visitors and partners to join the Plastic Free GW campaign and choose to avoid single-use plastics, whether at a university sponsored event or a retail store on or near campus. One of the ways the university will provide support for the GW community during this effort will be with the provided beverage bottle or reusable serviceware for incoming students.
4: Dialogue and discovery
The fourth scope in this process involves embracing the living laboratories on GW’s campuses. As a research institution, the university will encourage thought leaders to explore approaches to sustainability challenges and develop further solutions to the global single-use plastics problem. As GW positions itself to be part of the circular economy, items on campus will be developed, used and discarded in a way that ensures no waste and that workers and communities are treated with dignity.
Making an Impact
During the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, volunteers with the Rock Creek Conservancy removed more than 8,000 pounds of litter from the Rock Creek watershed, said Jeanne Braha, executive director of Rock Creek Conservancy. Most of that waste includes plastic bottles, wrappers and other “convenient waste,” she said.
“Beyond direct positive benefits to our watersheds, this policy will reduce the impacts of climate change, which are exacerbating the biggest threats to Rock Creek's resources,” Ms. Braha said. “By making an institutional commitment to eliminating single-use plastics, GW is creating the structures to make sustainable choices simpler for the university community, which will create change on a scale that Rock Creek will appreciate.”
While the university is taking steps toward accomplishing the goals outlined in the 2016 GW Roadmap to Zero Waste with this commitment, the university community will need to do its part in shifting behavior and choosing reusable items over disposable ones, said Meghan Chapple, director of the Office of Sustainability. Throughout this effort, Sustainable GW will ensure that the university community receives more information and resources on how to make better choices.
By taking the small steps toward reusable over disposable items, Ms. Chapple said, the GW community will help create a culture of making better decisions for the planet.
“This commitment sends a signal to our students, our faculty and our staff that this is really important and their actions matter,” Ms. Chapple said. “When we add up each person's daily choices, their contribution counts because a lot of people think, ‘it doesn't matter what I do,’ but when we do it as a university, as ‘one GW,’ then we can have a huge impact.”