Break Free From Plastic Campus Pledge logo. Dark blue circle with an outline of a water bottle and disposable fork inside along with text that reads #Break Free From Plastic Campus Pledge. There is also an image of UT Dallas students holding signs for their club that say “Eco” and “Sign the Petition Today”.

This Break Free From Plastic case study was guest written by student Paulina Hruskoci.

In my hometown of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, we don’t have plastic bags. At most stores, there are two options at check-out: grab a paper bag or provide your own reusable one. This change went into effect in July 2017, following a trend of plastic bag bans across the state of Massachusetts. This ban went into effect because of the impact plastic pollution is having on our oceans, our environment and ourselves.

When I moved to Texas for college, I was initially shocked by the level of plastic surrounding me on a daily basis. At most stores, plastic is the only option at check-out (unless you bring your own reusable bag), and plastic cups and bottles dominate the UT Dallas campus.

While working as an Eco Rep for our campus Office of Sustainability, I saw an opportunity: UT Dallas should example by phasing out single-use plastics. I was encouraged by Gary Cocke, Director of Sustainability at UT Dallas, and Dr. Carolyn Reichert, a Professor in the Naveen Jindal School of Management, to start researching it.

That’s when we learned about the Post Landfill Action Network, an organization setting an example by providing policy guidelines for campuses across the country. Suddenly, all of the complicated questions about implementation seemed to have an answer. PLAN had a plan to eliminate single use plastic, it had already worked for other campuses, and it could work for my campus.

In summer of 2020, I attended the Plastic Free Action Camp hosted by PLAN. During this 4 week camp in the height of COVID-19, I developed a strong background in environmental organizing, informed by tactics and theories that had worked for other campaigns. I also developed friendships with other passionate students from campuses across the country. Most importantly, I was provided with actionable steps I could actually take to get something moving on our campus.

Our student organization, ECO UTD, had already been working on gathering signatures on a petition to eliminate single use plastic, framed after the Break Free From Plastic Pledge PLAN had created. We held an event called Mt. Trashmore and started a social media campaign to gather more signatures and it became one of the most widely signed petitions in our college’s history, with over 1300 verified signatures. .

I crafted a proposal dedicated to implementing The Break Free From Plastic Pledge at UT Dallas. I researched historical action at UT Dallas for campus-wide policies, such as becoming a Tobacco Free Campus and the campaign to provide free menstrual products. All of these campaigns had something in common: vocal community support and a realistic action plan.

There were several unique concerns that we addressed in the proposal. I met with representatives from our university’s Office of AccessAbility to ensure our final plan incorporates accommodations for auxiliary aids. I also diligently researched health and sanitation concerns that had arisen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a UT Dallas team, we met with representatives from the UC System to learn how they had successfully taken action.

After meeting with UTD’s Office of AccessAbility to address accessibility concerns and representatives from the University of California System to see how they implement their policy, we finished the proposal. The university-wide Sustainability Committee quickly provided their feedback and unanimously approved the plan. We worked on spreading the word, presenting and gaining formal support from all 4 university-wide governing bodies: Faculty Senate, Staff Council, Student Government, and Graduate Student Assembly. These letters of support, along with our petition, is the foundation of our growing community of support.

We have continued to push the proposal through university administration, including meeting with the Vice President of Facilities and Economic Development. The Sustainability Committee drafted a pledge specific to UT Dallas, which we hope to have our President sign by the end of the academic year.

In the meantime, we’re exploring new channels to garner support. This past fall, we hosted a Single Use Plastics Town-Hall, with over 70 people in attendance, to answer questions about the policy. A sub-committee of the University-Wide Sustainability Committee, including Dr. Dorothee Honhon and Dr. Erin Greer, has been charged with crafting a more detailed implementation plan. Representatives of Student Government are working to pass an internal sustainability practices policy. Our work has also been uplifted by UTD Mercury, the student newspaper at UT Dallas.

I have been encouraged by the relationships that have formed as a result of our growing campaign. Staff members, faculty, and students from all disciplines have become involved through our Sustainability Committee meetings and events. Through our focus on building consensus, we have developed an actionable and realistic plan.

I feel confident that my university will set an example by becoming the first university in Texas to sign on to this pledge. While I wait for that, I remain inspired by the ripples of change that I have already seen, and how I have grown along the way.