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George Washington University commits to single-use-plastic ban

(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

George Washington University will begin to eliminate ­single-use plastics from campus, Thomas LeBlanc, the school’s president, said at a sustainability event Thursday.

The announcement is part of a campuswide, years-long effort to shrink the university’s carbon footprint, LeBlanc said. The campus over the past decade has invested in renewable energy, reduced food waste and shared plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. Leaders recently committed to divesting the university’s holdings in fossil fuel companies.

The ban will apply to plastics that are designed to be used once and then discarded — water bottles, cutlery, candy wrappers and bags — that clog local waterways and overwhelm landfills, LeBlanc said.

GWU is the first university in the D.C. area to make such a commitment, school officials said.

“We’ve long been a leader in sustainability,” LeBlanc said in an interview. “If you look at the work that we did last year in a number of areas, including our divestment policy, we’ve taken a lot of concrete steps, and this is the next very important step.”

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The university has already started phasing out single-use plastics, installing additional water-bottle refill stations across campus to encourage the use of reusable containers and filling vending machines with aluminum cans, which are easier than most plastics to recycle, said Meghan Chapple, director of the school’s sustainability office.

Most students probably will not see the changes until the fall, when the university has said it expects to reopen “to the fullest extent possible.” The school has been operating in a mostly virtual format since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday, LeBlanc also unveiled a policy that will prohibit university departments, student groups or guests from selling or giving away certain plastics, including beverage bottles and eating utensils. The university will work to find alternatives, such as reusable straws made from bamboo or snacks with compostable wrappers.

Officials at GWU, which has made budget cuts during the pandemic, did not say how much it will cost to invest in plastic alternatives and install water-bottle refill stations in every campus building. But LeBlanc said he expects the investment will pay off over time.

Chapple said the university will ultimately save money by eliminating the need to purchase “unnecessary plastics” and cutting down on recycling and garbage disposal fees.

School leaders said their plan will require some creativity, such as finding sanitary ways for students to reuse food containers at campus restaurants and investing in cutlery made from corn or seaweed instead of plastic, which is made from the fossil fuels that are driving climate change.

It will also take a shift in the campus’s culture. Students will not be punished for using single-use plastics on campus, but school officials plan to offer enough alternatives so that students will not need to rely on plastics, Chapple said.

“We’re trying to make it easy,” said LeBlanc, adding that the next class of incoming first-year students will be given reusable water bottles when they move onto campus.

The university’s announcement comes as the school celebrates its bicentennial and days after students marched to LeBlanc’s on-campus residence and demanded the closure of the Regulatory Studies Center, the GW Hatchet reported.

The academic center was established to produce research on regulatory issues but has come under scrutiny. Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, reported that the center advocates for government deregulation and receives funding from Charles Koch, the billionaire philanthropist whose company is tied to the fossil fuel industry.

University officials, including more than a dozen professors, released a letter Thursday that called the Public Citizen report “misleading and inaccurate” and said the center “does not take institutional positions on any issues.”

But to some, GWU’s support of the research center is at odds with the school’s stated commitment to environmental sustainability.

“I don’t think they can say that they’re a leader in sustainability while also doing something that’s so clearly anti-sustainable,” said Kat Ruane, a junior and co-president of Take Back the Tap, a campus organization that advocates for reusable beverage bottles and access to free water.

Ruane and other student activists have been vocal opponents of plastic water bottles and have worked with the university over the past year to introduce the single-use ban.

Jennifer Cuyuch, another Take Back the Tap leader, said that she is happy with the school’s progress but that student organizers have other demands. She called on the school to make deeper investments in the Office of Sustainability and develop more classes — in addition to the minor GWU offers in sustainability — on environmental conservation.

“I think it’s a good step forward,” Cuyuch said. “Most people don’t necessarily know about the issue of plastic water bottles on campus.”

Jeanne Braha, executive director of Rock Creek Conservancy, said plastic bans can have a positive effect on the environment.

After the District introduced its 5-cent plastic-bag fee in 2010, conservancy volunteers noticed a “dramatic drop” in the number of bags that were pulled from Rock Creek, Braha said.

But other plastics remain a challenge. Volunteers from the organization dedicated to protecting Rock Creek and its surrounding parks recently pulled more than 8,000 pounds of litter — much of it beverage bottles, wrappers and plastic waste — from the watershed.

Reversing that trend will require people to make significant lifestyle changes, which can be difficult, Braha said.

“It’s overwhelming and challenging to make changes, even small changes, on your own,” Braha said. “So, to have an entire system that’s changing, having the university’s systems set up to enable people to use alternatives makes it a lot easier for students to fall in that habit of using reusable items.”

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