Community Featured homepage

The 2021 Plastic Free Ecochallenge Begins

By Jarea Fang

Finally, it is that time of year: Plastic Free July, during which citizens around the globe raise awareness about plastic waste and advocate for ways to reduce single-use plastics in our daily lives. In celebration of July, our WashU Ecochallenge team is once again gathering its members to #breakfreefromplastic by participating in the annual Plastic Free Ecochallenge.

The 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 2019 documentary The Story of Plastic, directed by WashU alumni Deia Schlosberg, highlights the devastating effects plastic has on the environment and human health, from its production process in the oil refineries to its eternal slumber in poisonous landfills.

While the crisis of plastics can be an intimidating topic for the most of us to approach, especially considering the pervasiveness of the fossil fuel industry in our everyday lives, it doesn’t have to be. The Plastic Free Ecochallenge has a motto, a quote from Anne-Marie Bonneau, notable zero-waste chef: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero-waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” Thus, every single step away from plastic counts, from going plastic-free in your bathroom to writing an email to your local elected officials. The Plastic Free Ecochallenge, with its variety of individual tasks and community-based actions to commit to during the thirty-one days of July, is specifically designed to help all members of society learn to take baby steps toward dismantling Big Plastic.

Kicking off Plastic Free July

On June 30th, both the School of Medicine and the Danforth Campus held kick-off events for this year’s Plastic Free Ecochallenge. Heather Craig, the sustainability coordinator at WUSM, held a virtual luncheon presentation about plastics while Aamna Anwer, the sustainability coordinator at the Office of Sustainability, held an in-person, DIY tote bag-making event right outside of Schnuck Pavilion on the East End.

“About a dozen people came,” says Aamna, “anywhere from twelve to fifteen people. It was very exciting and we will probably do this again in the fall.”

The DIY tote bags were made from brand new but outdated leftover t-shirts donated by various departments and offices across WashU. Many of these t-shirts were made for and handed out for free during big, university-wide events and celebrations, but eventually found their way into long-term storage as their purpose was no longer relevant. The practice of transforming an unneeded item into something useful is called “upcycling,” and here is what Aamna has to say about this sustainability practice:  

“Part of training yourself to think sustainably is rethinking disposal: does this item really need to go into the trash or recycling? Could it serve some other purpose? For example, we can pick up grocery store cakes for special occasions and reuse the empty plastic cake container for winter sowing seeds.” 

By upcycling them as tote bags, this kick-off event gave the leftover t-shirts an opportunity to gain a new life as trendy, practical items for the enjoyment of many, instead of taking up useless space in a landfill.

“I heard a couple people mention how cute the bags were and how useful they would be in their day-to-day lives,” says Sophie, an OOS intern who helped facilitate the event. “I’m really looking forward to other in-person events in the future!”

What’s Coming Next

Of course, the kick-off events were only the beginning. The Office of Sustainability is hopeful for the possibility of hosting more events that will allow team members of WashU Plastic Free to come together.

On Wednesday, July 7th, over 25 team members gathered for a virtual townhall to discuss plastic usage at WashU and the ways we can utilize university resources to mitigate that. The conversation was robust and active, allowing the community to not only understand the role they play in this mission but also how far WashU has already come in its plastic-free journey.

“WashU, specifically OOS, has worked hard to increase composting at locations across the Danforth campus. Their hard work has led to a decrease in the percentage of recycling and compost that is rejected by the collection companies,” writes Lauren Bruhl, a team member, on the Ecochallenge feed where others also shared their thoughts on the townhall. “Another takeaway is that the WashU Med Campus has different goals and strengths compared to Danforth Campus regarding sustainability,” she adds, which seems to be a shared consensus among participants. Participants expressed interest in work that would bridge sustainability efforts across the WashU School of Medicine and Danforth campuses.

As for additional events, on Thursday, July 15th, OOS Assistant Director Cassie Hage will host a virtual, homemade yogurt demonstration, reprising her teaching role from last year’s Plastic Free Ecochallenge. Then, on Wednesday, July 21st and 28th, both Danforth Campus and WUSM will host virtual lunch and learn events for team members to gather and exchange tips on zero-waste habits to carry on after the conclusion of Plastic Free July.

OOS is also hosting raffles and handing out small, on-brand gifts throughout July. For your participation, you have the chance to be rewarded with bamboo reusable cutlery, bar soaps, loose leaf tea, and reusable produce bags. You can also earn prizes through raffles by checking in at least 20 times throughout July, be among the top half of points earners at the midpoint of the month,

be among the top 5 points earners at the end of the competition, or by attending the events throughout the challenge. Two members of WashU Plastic free have already won Swedish cloths and reusable produce bags for their participation at the townhall, so please look forward to more prizes.

It is never too late to join the movement, and kicking off your plastic-free journey does not have to be an extravagant affair, nor does it have to be lonely. Any effort is better than no effort, and WashU’s Ecochallenge team has historically built a robust community and ranked high across different Ecochallenges (as of the publication of this post, we are ranked #11). As a team member, you earn points for WashU Plastic Free and create positive impacts for the earth with every completed action. You can choose actions that are taken one-time or daily, and choose them from categories such as Food, Lifestyle, Community, Family, Pets, and Personal Care. Anything that aligns with your sustainability values can successfully develop into zero-waste habits.

“It can be hard and intimidating trying something new,” says Aamna. “What I love about the Ecochallenge is that we are all encouraged to try something new which is a beautiful way to come together. It doesn’t matter what level of plastic dependence you’re at–there’s always room for growth.” 

Happy July. Let us #breakfreefromplastic and keep raising the bar!