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In Celebration of the Plastic Free Ecochallenge Community

By Jarea Fang 

Jarea Fang, Communication Associate at the Office of Sustainability, is one of the 90 WashU Plastic Free team members who participated in the 2021 Plastic Free Ecochallenge. She shares about planning the Ecochallenge, the community she built with her teammates, and most importantly, the long-term importance of an individual’s plastic free journey.  

The July Plastic Free Ecochallenge is a month-long effort open to all participants interested in learning how to shift away from our society’s dependence on single-use plastics. The WashU sustainability community has always been robust in their participation in Ecochallenges and this month was no exception. With a national ranking of 13 out of 391, 90 team members, and 22291 total points, our Ecochallenge team has made an incredible impact on our community and will continue to do so even after the conclusion of the month.  

Planning Social Events for the Plastic Free Ecochallenge 

WashU’s Ecochallenge journey commenced during Earth Month in April 2020, shortly after everyone was sent home after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal of the virtual Ecochallenge, initially, was to make up for the loss of in-person activities at the time, but soon the Office of Sustainability realized the versatility of a community like this one. Not only are Ecochallenges designed to build extensive communities across borders, they also equip team members with actionable knowledge about environmental issues to continue building upon even after the challenge concludes. Since the April 2020 Earth Day Ecochallenge, WashU has participated in four of these programs and we expect to participate in many more in the coming years.  

What makes the 2021 Plastic Free Ecochallenge extra special, however, are the in-person and virtual events hosted outside of the Ecochallenge platform. From the in-person, tote bag-making activity on June 30th to the two virtual Lunch & Learns about zero waste living at the end of the month, team members of WashU Plastic Free have gathered to exchange friendship as well as plastic-free tips. For the virtual events in particular, roughly 25 people showed up each time and all the conversations were amicable and passionate. It was rewarding for those of us who planned these events to see how well our community has responded to these efforts.  

“I loved having the social aspect of Plastic Free July Ecochallenge. It was wonderful to have fun and engaging conversations that were also productive in terms of achieving sustainability goals,” says Heather Craig, the Sustainability Coordinator of the School of Medicine who facilitated the conversations along with Aamna Anwer and Cassie Hage from the Office of Sustainability. “Having these events definitely created a stronger bond between team members, encouraged people to attend even more events, and fostered them to further reduce their plastic use.”  

As for myself, having been a participant in many WashU Ecochallenges and a captain for most of them, it was exciting to finally use these social events as an opportunity to meet my team. It was one thing to send out bi-weekly team emails but another to finally meet everyone face to face. This sense of community, along with the positive and encouraging environment we built, definitely gave myself and the other captains incentive to try our best.  

“The Plastic Free EcoChallenge made me feel much more engaged in the sustainability-oriented communities at WashU,” says Sophie Ross, another Communications Associate who designed most of the fliers and posters for the events. “The community of people here is so strong. It was special to be a part of it through this challenge.” 

Concluding the Ecochallenge 

The 2021 Plastic Free Ecochallenge concluded on July 31st, a Saturday.  

“July has flown by,” writes team member Lauren Bruhl on the Ecochallenge team feed. Echoing this sentiment is Linda Kram who writes, “It was great. I am much more aware!” 

Aamna, the Sustainability Coordinator of OOS, is already looking forward to planning the next Ecochallenge. “I hope we’re able to do more in-person events next time around,” she says. It’s nice to know that these social events, which we have never done before, is a win for the WashU sustainability community.  

Closing an Ecochallenge is always a tearful event, but I signed out my last team email with “have a green future” for a reason. With its variety of individual tasks and community-based actions to commit to during the thirty-one days of July, the Plastic Free Ecochallenge is specifically designed to help all members of society learn to take baby steps toward dismantling Big Plastic, and this journey will take years, perhaps even lifetimes. The best thing about participating in an Ecochallenge, however, is knowing that you’ll never be alone in your commitment. Considering how close-knit the community of WashU Plastic Free has become, being a part of this team means understanding that you will never lose the friends that you gained.  

This companionship is especially important to Heather, who joined our team this past June. “I am new to WashU and this was such a great way to meet people within the community who are dedicated to making sustainable changes in their lives,” She says. “My job is dedicated to sustainability, and of course that is important to me, but the human element has made the Plastic Free Ecochallenge so much more rewarding.”  

To those that participated in the Plastic Free Ecochallenge: We appreciate you and we celebrate you. Thank you for coming!  

An Eventful Throwback 

  1. Plastic Free Ecochallenge Events.  
  1. The 2021 Plastic Free Ecochallenge Officially Begins 
  1. Cassie Hage’s Yogurt & Granola Demonstration, 7/15 
  1. Lunch & Learn: Zero Waste Lifestyle, 7/21 
  1. Lunch & Learn: Zero Waste Lifestyle, 7/28