Students express plastic use concerns | News | valpotorch.com – The Torch

Students express plastic use concerns | News | valpotorch.com – The Torch yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7

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Clear skies. Low 52F. Winds S at 10 to 15 mph.
Updated: October 23, 2023 @ 7:32 pm

Despite not having a director this year, the Office of Sustainability has persevered in its efforts to mitigate plastic waste on campus. Students have expressed concerns about the university’s high levels of plastic waste and the impact that it could have on the environment as well as on the Valpo community.
Abbie Valicevic, a student worker in the environmental chemistry lab, has been one of the leading voices expressing these concerns. Her work has motivated her to spread awareness of the effects of plastic waste and to advocate for the changes she sees as necessary.
“Plastic is not a stable material, chemically. It breaks down, but [not] in the way we think it does … It breaks down into smaller pieces of plastic called nanoplastics, and those never go away,” Valicevic said. “They can end up in the dirt or in water, and they can also end up in our bodies … and they have really harmful effects. Working in the lab kind of opens your eyes to just how much plastic there is in the world and how much we use.”
This is precisely what Tyler Kuss, an intern at the Office of Sustainability, researched as part of a waste audit two years ago. He has since been at the forefront of the office’s efforts to decrease waste based on the results.
“We started off by doing a waste audit, which was a campus-wide audit in the spring and summer of 2021 … So that was taking samples of the trash and recycling from all the different buildings and looking at what was producing those,” Kuss said. “And the biggest finding … right off the bat was the amount of plastic bags that we were using.”
In an attempt to reduce the volume of plastic bags used, the office removed many trash bins in locations where they were not being used or where others were in close proximity. They also collected recycling strategically at events, such as move-in day and sporting events, as well as introducing recycling bins into residence halls for the first time last year.
“Fifteen percent of our total waste on campus was just the plastic trash bags. So we have removed those bins, and we now also only pull our cans when they’re more than half full,” Kuss said. “So we estimate we’ll save 51,000 trash bags per year. We also have implemented outdoor recycling containers at events like Welcome Week.” 
These efforts have thus far proved to be successful to some extent, especially as it pertains to increasing recycling rates among students.
“We’re already seeing a big impact based on some of the changes that we have done … We’ve increased our recycling rate a ton at the residence halls this year with those news bins. “It was at [around] a 5% recycling rate last year, and now it’s at 50%, which is great,” Kuss said.
However, Valicevic pointed out that without an active Director of Sustainability, the organization is limited in its ability to fulfill its role. She sees this leadership as necessary to implement more comprehensive improvements.
“That project … was started by Julie Whittaker, who was the Director of Sustainability in the office, but she moved this year, and the university hasn’t hired another director, which is concerning because the office can’t technically claim to exist and be running if there’s not a director running it,” Valicevic said. “I know there’s a student intern who works there, which is great, and he does great work. But it’s not his full time job to be paying attention to these things on campus and really be making a change.”
Additionally, Valicevic believes that recycling, which has been the main focus of the Office of Sustainability’s efforts thus far, is not a sufficient solution in itself. She emphasized the advantages of switching to more sustainable alternatives in the long run.
“What’s difficult is that people tend to really promote recycling when we think of sustainability, but [it] is a lot more than just putting something in a recycling bin,” Valicevic said. “I think it’s not as much focusing on just recycling as the solution, but just stopping or slowing single-use plastic on campus is really important.”
She views the responsibility for this not on students alone but on the governing bodies who have the power to enact more widespread changes. For her, this misattribution of responsibility is where the current approaches to addressing environmental issues, both by the university and in a larger context, falls short.
“It’s kind of analogous to what we think about as far as climate change overall. Obviously, our individual efforts are important, but the big problem is companies … who have large greenhouse gas emissions every year and who produce massive amounts of plastic,” Valicevic said. “If they’re pushing the students to make a change … it kind of puts the pressure and the blame on students when the university is making the choice to not practice sustainability.”
Valicevic cited economic considerations as a possible motivation for this decision, and she expressed her disappointment that the university has thus far not taken her department’s concerns and advice seriously.
“What unfortunately happens is that we tend to try to run things like a business [by focusing on] what’s cost effective. It’s a lot cheaper to buy plastic than it is to buy reusable dining products,” Valicevic said. “But in the long run, it’s disappointing to see an institution of higher education [that] has a chemistry lab where we do research and talk about the effects of things like this … still actively make the choice to not follow the recommendations that we give.”
While the university has seen positive results from the waste audit changes, it remains to be seen whether or not the Office of Sustainability will find a director and continue making environmental strides on campus.
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