Picture this: it’s 12:30 P.M. Maybe you’re fresh out of a lecture, or hangry after a long bus ride. You look inside your bag, rifling around. Keys, wallet, laptop, notebooks, maybe an old muesli bar, crumbling under some forgotten receipts. Ah shit. You’ve forgotten your lunch… again. It’s ok, you think. You’ve still got some of that sweet, sweet StudyLink money. You’ll get sushi again, or a pie. Treat yo’self!
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Many of us wish we were food prep queens, bringing in mason jar salads every day. But the reality is, it’s hard out here. There are uni commitments, there are extracurriculars, there are family commitments, and there’s having a life. You’re not the only one who has to buy a pie or five every week.
But aside from the state of your bank account after a particularly busy week, have you ever felt guilty about the collection of soft plastic slowly building up at the bottom of your bag? A sushi carton, a takeaway cup, wooden chopsticks, plastic containers. It all adds up pretty quickly.
The environmental cost of single-use plastic production is remarkably steep. Single-use plastic items take over 20 years to break down, leaving behind toxic chemicals that then break down into even smaller pieces—microplastics. Plastic waste and microplastics cause significant harm to the natural environment and animal life, as well as contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
A 2015 study by the University of Georgia found that between 4.8 million and 12.7 million metric tonnes of plastic make their way into the ocean each year. Once this plastic has polluted our oceans, it not only disrupts marine life, but contaminates the seafood that many people rely on.
Residual plastic, and single-use plastics in their entirety, can strangle, disable, and kill wild life. Plastic has also been linked to issues such as infertility, birth defects and cancer, in addition to contaminating our soil and water. Our current culture of plastic consumption is unsustainable,
That’s not to say that minimising waste is the sole responsibility of the consumer. We all slip up. But if we all do the best we can, we can make concrete change.
New Zealand has done a great job of discouraging excessive plastic consumption. As of July 1st 2019, single-use plastic shopping bags were banned, and stores were then forced to offer environmentally friendly alternatives. Then, of course, everyone jumped on the “skip the straw, save the sea turtle” bandwagon, which resulted in the majority of restaurants and businesses switching over to paper straws. Fantastic! Ka pai, Aotearoa!
But what about the University of Auckland?
While some students actively support the goal of having a plastic-free campus, and take personal steps to achieve this (e.g. bringing reusable keep cups), other students feel that outlets that distribute single-use plastics are still cheaper and faster than most other food providers on campus, making them their go-to choice.
The reality is, the widespread culture of consumption has taught us to value convenience and accessibility over values like environmentalism. It’s a hard habit to unlearn, but it’s also important to acknowledge that institutions and systems that uphold the status quo concerning single-use plastics often leave us with little option.
Ryan Patterson, a student at UoA notes that it’s important to make little changes to be environmentally conscious, “but it’s unlikely [we’ll] go completely plastic free in my opinion.”
Another student, Savannah Syred, added that “I would go out of my way to use the most sustainable option, but it is hard to find entirely sustainable businesses, especially nearby.”
So what steps has our campus taken to provide us with sustainable alternatives, and how do the businesses and clubs at UoA support or encourage the elimination of plastics at school? How do we turn away from our culture of convenient consumption, and toward a culture of sustainability?
I reached out to some environmentally focused clubs, and popular food providers on campus and to find out.
Ha! Poke, located on Symonds Street, responded stating that they currently use plastic free bowls and cutlery that are compostable, and offer 10% discounts for B.Y.O containers. The next step now is for the University to adopt bins for compostable materials.
Once or twice a week, vegan lunches are held by The Veda Club or the Sustainability Network and they offer discounts on lunches for those who bring their own tupperware. According to Veda Club President Kalindi Fletcher, at least half of the students attending their lunches bring their own containers. The alternative to their B.Y.O initiative is compostable/biodegradable cutlery and containers, which they provide for an additional .50 cents.
On these changes, Fletcher noted that “It is seriously important to us to adopt a low waste lifestyle and make it easier for students on campus to lower their plastic consumption too.” Their approach acknowledged that “We are in no way perfect, [and] avoiding plastic entirely is nearly impossible in this day and age. However, I think our lunches have definitely saved a ton of plastic being bought and consumed — think of all the Munchie Mart pies dressed in plastic and chip wrappers that we’ve saved from landfills!”
Mojo Coffee, located on Symonds Street, does not currently offer incentives such as discounts for B.Y.O items, but all of their takeaway products are compostable, and they are involved in the “Again Again” reusable cup network – “a cup lending system that eliminates single-use waste”.
Donna, head of operations, expressed how their staff are encouraged to give feedback and suggest ideas to create a more sustainable workplace. For example, there was a complaint about butter coming in pre-packaged plastic containers, and so they made a company-wide decision to begin hand-wrapping pre-cut butter in baking paper. They are also impressed by the number of students that do decide to bring their own reusable cups, despite any incentive!
So it appears most businesses and clubs on campus are trying to support plastic-free or zero waste lifestyles in some shape or form. These contributions bring a plastic-free future within reach, because they pave the way for future vendors on campus. They also incentivise students to bring their own reusable items. Not only does this benefit the University’s plastic footprint, but it benefits you wherever you go. No more guilty clean-outs of various accumulated trash! (But maybe more lunchboxes to wash, oop).
So, what would a plastic-free campus look like? In short, any product purchased on campus would be distributed in recyclable, compostable, reusable, or sustainable materials. It would be easy to then put the responsibility on businesses to offer a larger variety of products, expand their locations for convenience, and carry sustainable products.
Although this would be ideal, personal responsibility also has a part to play. We should all be seeking these plastic-free businesses and supporting them, whether or not it is an extra five minute walk, or doesn’t sell the exact brand of oat milk you usually use.
Personally, I only allow myself to purchase a takeaway coffee if I have my keep cup with me, otherwise, I’m just out of luck. This goes for cutlery too. I keep a small reusable cutlery set in my bag for when I get takeaway food, and if I don’t have it with me, I choose an option that doesn’t require any. I also like to keep a fabric tote bag folded up inside my purse/bag, so if I end up shopping or needing more space, I don’t have to opt for a less sustainable carry option. If we all integrated simple habits like these into our lives and communities, they would begin to make a significant impact.
Contributions to sustainability, made by businesses and students, would result in a significant decrease in the University’s contribution to plastic pollution in Aotearoa. Additionally, the adoption of conveniently placed, and plentiful, recycling and compost bins on campus would assist the goal of sustainable living at UoA. Only when all food providers use sustainable products to serve their food/drinks, campus stores provide carry bags made from recyclable materials, and students bring reusable items from home, will the University of Auckland be on path to measurably reducing single-use plastics.
To create a culture of sustainability, and to achieve a plastic-free lifestyle on the UoA campus, both businesses/clubs and individuals must make small sacrifices and do their part. If we, the University of Auckland, make an effort to reduce our plastic consumption, there will be a multitude of benefits such as: less carbon dioxide emissions, cleaner water, safer food, reducing pollution, and a clear conscience! If we all do our part, we can save the Earth. Kia kaha UoA!