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Hey PLAN Community! 

My name is Baleigh Epperly (She/ They) and I wanted to take a moment to chat about student power and driving an effort for your campus to break free from plastic! I am a senior in undergrad studying Sociology at Marshall University in West Virginia, the first school to sign the Break Free From Plastic pledge in Appalachia.  

Our group is beyond excited that we are the first school in Appalachia to ‘Break Free From Plastic’ and we consider this a huge victory for students and a step toward a more sustainable and livable future. We will be even closer to a more liveable climate if and when more schools follow in the same footsteps we have to make this change. West Virginia is a state that is popularly socially linked with poverty, industry extraction and pollution, low educational attainment and it may be the last state many would expect such a change to happen. However, if you are from here, as I am, you may understand that we run on kinship and we often rely on supporting and being supported by our communities. West Virginians have been resourceful and sustainable for a long time, we are familiar with using and reusing what we have and making it last

I co-founded a club in 2018 (because there was not an environmental club at our school), and in 2019 we were looking for ways to take action and make a positive sustainable change on our campus. We had been supporting other local campaigns and petitions, but we wanted to start something of our own. We learned through Earth Guardians Org that students banned plastic bottles and other items on their campus and we wanted to try it at our University. We did this with the help from PLAN through both Plastic Free Action Camp in summer 2020 and The Students Taking on Oil and Petrochemicals Program, which started in September 2020.

The most important aspect when launching a campaign is to get students and staff excited and involved in your effort. My group did this by petitioning. We began tabling and canvassing to educate students and staff about the plastic crisis, & gathering signatures of support. One of the most impactful aspects of this campaign was meeting new supporters and seeing their reactions of shock, confusion, and anger to facts and figures about plastic waste and pollution. And then funneling them immediately into action.

Some folks may disagree, but to me, petitioning is not an aggressive or demanding tactic—it simply gives your team the opportunity to talk to other students 1 on 1 and an easy action for new folks to take immediately. This is a great way to bring in more team members and as you gather more signatures; it will provide a concrete data representation of how many students (and staff/ faculty, ask them to sign too) support this effort over time. You may also get more ideas from new supporters on how to better your campaign, or start a coalition to care about other issues on campus. 

Our president heard about and saw our petition after we conducted a Brand Audit and he signed the pledge right after he was shown the support behind this initiative we created; and the cost analysis of how much money can be saved in the long run by switching from plastic products to more sustainable ones (paper, compostable, biodegradable, etc.)

Marshall University Students conducting a Brand Audit in 2020

Administration of universities always have their own agendas, and the truth often is that they want to be the sole drivers of change because it makes their university and position look better than the rest. The reality is that there would be no university without students, and if we organize together our voices become louder and stronger as a collective; coming together and rallying for change. Your effort may be the final push or initial spark of conversation to get your campus to undertake such a transition. An engaged student body is an empowered one, and engaging peers can be as simple as asking them to sign your petition and share it with their friends. There is so much power in student action.

It is up to us to hold the industries that continue to create single use plastic products accountable, for polluting our planet and causing severe health risks in low income often BIPOC and rural communities, for knowing they are a leading cause in global temperature rise, and for not acting years ago and still to this day; as they have known switches need to be made and alternatives should be more accessible. 

Our work as a student club is not done with the signing of the pledge. We have also been working on a social campaign to educate folks about the proposed petrochemical buildout for our state and surrounding states. We tell a cautionary tale of the petrochemical buildout that may be coming to the region that will result in more single-use plastics being produced, more poverty, and more destroyed communities.

Baleigh Epperly (She/ They)

Marshall University Sustainability Club President

Student Taking on Petrochemicals Intern with PLAN

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition Vice Chair