On the first day of class, in addition to discussing rules for attendance, policies for late work, and grading scales, we talk about what single-use plastic means.
Of course there are all of the water bottles. We in the United States consume half a billion plastic bottles of water per week — a consumer choice that costs 2,000 times the price of tap water. While plastic bottles are the most prevalent problem and will not be tolerated in my classroom, I ask the students to think about other forms of one-use plastic in their lives.
“What else?,” students wonder as they think through their habits: plastic baggies and plastic-wrapped food items, plastic utensils, the green stoppers and white lids on Starbucks cups, Starbucks cups themselves?! Despite the fact that most of my students are studying merchandising and fashion, they often overlook their own single-use clothing. A majority of clothing is made from plastics, and fast fashion has reduced the expected lifetime of garments from 50 washings to 10. This is very similar to the plastic water bottle quandary: a product engaged in short-term use but inherently durable.
Convenient refreshment is consumed in as little as two minutes and offered in material meant to last for thousands of years. During that final sip before tossing a coffee cup into the nearest garbage can, many people don’t find time to reflect that 80 percent of plastic water bottles end up in landfills, placed far, far away from campus.
Companies exist for the very purpose of serving that scale of demand, profiting from time-starved consumers conveniently dissociated from the repercussions of their purchases.
The rapid consumption of products presents so many potential design problems, but also so much opportunity for innovation. How do we reduce, reuse, and recycle equitably and sustainably in Bloomington? The Resource Use and Recycling Working Group in the Office of Sustainability is but one example of efforts toward building a campus recycling infrastructure and chipping away at solutions, such as pairing every trash bin with a recycling bin, composting, and encouraging smart energy use. While infrastructure will continue to look to empower sustainable resource use, there is the considerable continued challenge of evolving our campus culture to promote noticeable reduction, reuse, and recycling.
As part of the Principles of Excellence in the Bicentennial Strategic Plan for Indiana University Bloomington, we have a commitment to student success through a safe, vibrant and healthy community that pursues and supports sustainability on our campus.
Sustainability in Product assumes students can and should be engaged in immersive learning where their everyday decision-making and habits are magnified and challenged through the lens of sustainability. Thus, campus, its infrastructure, systems, decisions, and products become the laboratory for my students. We need to continue to collectively reimagine campus, what it offers and what it does not, clearly understanding that campus is THE place where students are engaged to critically discover, use, or especially create opportunities for sustainable practices — ultimately laying a foundation for innovative insight and action in their future communities.