ST. PETERSBURG — When professors Amy Siuda and Shannon Gowans first embarked on their quest to make Eckerd College a more sustainable, plastic-free campus, their ultimate goal was to build a culture where you would get funny looks for using plastic.
They started by securing a grant for more than $115,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris program towards a two-year research project to eliminate the use of single-use plastics such as water bottles and snacks like granola bars and yogurt.
They called it “Reduce Single-Use” and put $35,000 of the grant toward the purchase of stainless steel straws and tumblers, and sets of reusable bamboo dining utensils for its 2,500 students, faculty and staff members. The efforts also spread to visitors on campus tours, who are offered a reusable water bottle with an Eckerd logo on it.
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But now to complement the project, the college’s president, Donald R. Eastman III, who is set to retire this year, has signed a pledge to help the institution maintain that culture.
Eastman signed a pledge Tuesday called “Break Free from Plastic,” which prohibits faculty, staff and students from using any of the college funds to purchase most nonessential single-use plastics such as single-serve beverage bottles, plates, utensils, cups, shopping bags, hot-beverage packets in plastic, plastic shipping and packing materials, plasticated name tags, balloons, glow sticks, glitter and more.
“When we talk about developing students into thoughtful, environmentally aware citizens, stewardship is a part of that equation,” Eastman said in a release.
“This pledge is a commitment from the college to be the example of what practical stewardship of our resources should resemble.”
According to the pledge, scientific research, teaching needs, and health and safety essentials are the only exceptions, and the institution vows to work with third-party vendors to encourage a reduction in their nonessential plastics provided on campus and to invest in education and resources to help reduce plastic consumption on the campus and in neighboring communities.
The pledge excites students like Angelina Kossoff and Trish Schranck, environmental studies and marine science majors, who are passionate about sustainability and worked on the project.
It’s particularly special to them because they remember what Eckerd College was like before their many plastic-free initiatives.
Schranck, a 22-year old senior, said she had a “hippie education” growing up, so she has always cared about plastic and sustainability.
It also played a huge role in her college search.
She chose Eckerd College because of the way the school gloated its sustainable practices on visits. But when she came as a freshman four years ago, she realized that wasn’t the case.
“It was advertised as having all the same things I’ve grown up with, and then I got here, I went to the pub and I saw the plastic forks and I was upset,” Schranck said.
“I was like, ‘Why is this here?' ‘Why do we have plastic cups?' I thought this was this really sustainable place.”
She took matters into her own hands by sitting outside of the on-campus Starbucks, telling people to bring their reusable cups, selling metal straws, and even making several metal straw memes on Instagram.
When the “Reduce Single-Use” project developed, she seized the opportunity by taking the required three-week course on marine debris research. She helped lead monthly beach cleanups and administers hands-on workshops on plastic alternatives where she showed students recipes to make their own yogurt, granola bars and power bowls.
Students collected data from water bottle filling stations, reduction challenges, and coastal and campus cleanups.
They also observed single-use plastic and alternative items use at high-traffic locations like the campus Starbucks, bookstore, pub and cafeteria to track trends in behavior. They found some places were more sustainable than others.Starbucks and the bookstore initially struggled to eliminate plastics, but did reduce their use. The bookstore eliminated plastic bags and now charges for a paper option, and Starbucks only provides plastic straws upon request.
Although the two years has not expired yet, NOAA is proud of its newest pledge and some of the achievements Eckerd College has made so far from the grant.
“We’re very pleased to support the great work of the Eckerd College Reduce Single-Use Plastic Project," Jason Rolfe of the NOAA’s marine debris program said in an email.
"Everyone has a part to play in tackling the problem of marine debris, and we are excited that Eckerd College will continue their efforts to raise awareness of marine debris and encourage positive change, both on campus and in the wider community, even after our grant funding concludes.”
Siuda, who is an assistant professor of marine science, and Gowans, who is a professor of biology and marine science, said now their next goal is to see their efforts at Eckerd spread in the community.
“At Eckerd, it’s a small place, but we have the potential for a big impact,” Gowans said.
“It does have bigger buying power than what I do for my family, and it’s a great place for that ripple effect because we have students coming from all over the U.S. and when they leave Eckerd they go all over the world. So, they’re taking what they what they’ve done back to their families and their friends.”