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Eckerd College grant targets single-use plastics

A limpkin with a piece of straw stuck on its bill has a morsel to eat it grabbed. - Bird rescuer Kim Begay, who works with Birds in Helping Hands, recently got word about a limpkin that had a straw stuck on it's bill that was hanging around a pond in Oldsmar. It's things like this that made Eckerd College ban plastic straws on campus and work to cut down on other single use plastics. . JIM DAMASKE | Times

By DIVYA KUMAR

Times Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — Eckerd College biology professor Shannon Gowans often meets people who say they're conservation-minded. But she'll later see those same people carrying plastic cups from Starbucks.

Gowans and marine science professor Amy Siuda are leading an initiative to eliminate the use of single-use plastics at Eckerd College after receiving a grant for more than $115,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program.

"People don't always practice what they talk about," Siuda said. "I try my hardest and I know I don't always as well. ... I think it's important for people to think about that you eating a snack pack of crackers could impact the marine ecosystem. Not everyone thinks about that, and recycling is not really the answer. We need to think about our use."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Plastic pollution in Tampa Bay is bigger than straws. Here's what local advocates are doing

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist met with the professors and a few students on Monday to learn about the initiative.

"This is an issue that's exploding," he said.

With the grant, Eckerd has purchased 700 stainless steel straws and tumblers, gifted to incoming freshmen. Every student, faculty and staff member will also receive a set of reusable bamboo dining utensils. Visitors on campus who take Eckerd's 90-minute walking tour will be presented with the option of selecting a reusable water bottle with an Eckerd logo on it over single-use water bottles, and given an umbrella instead of disposable plastic ponchos.

Director of admissions Jake Browne said his office routinely sees on average 7,500 visitors a year. After the grant expires, he expects the university to take on some of the costs to continue the commitment to sustainability.

"This is a good way to educate those outside the Eckerd community when visitors first step foot on campus," he said. "This is a great seed opportunity to start to make a difference. Hopefully this starts to change the culture."

Charles Grisafi, the Florida Caribbean regional coordinator for NOAA, said while he's seen several applications from individual groups, this is the first time he's seen an entire campus working to reduce single-use plastics.

As businesses and municipalities across the region have launched campaigns targeting straws and plastic products, Eckerd banned plastic straws from campus in spring. The professors decided to take a softer approach with other plastic products.

"We've chosen not to do a ban program because you end up with resentment," Gowans said. "We're trying to get people to understand the link between their own actions and the effects of plastic debris."

Part of the grant includes funding for students to come up with their own projects and an education component, which will bring speakers to campus and includes freshmen seminars by Gowans and Siuda that include beach cleanups and visits to wastewater treatment sites. The campus will also collect observational data about its plastic use and send it back to NOAA.

Stephen Boerner, a freshman majoring in marine science, said he's excited about the initiative.

"It seems like the whole world is waking up to this," he said. "It's great to be a part of that."

Claire Bomer, a sophomore majoring in political science and a campus tour guide, said some of her friends have started buying almonds in bulk instead of using single use packages. She texted her mom telling her they should try to eliminate single-use plastics at home too.

"I feel like our campus could spread it to other people," she said.

Contact Divya Kumar at dkumar@tampabay.com. Follow @divyadivyadivya.

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