Sustainability that sticks: GW students make reducing plastic personal

A person in a white shirt, head not pictured, holds a yellow water bottle with several colorful, overlapping stickers.

Paige Valego, GW class of 2021. (Greer Blount/George Washington University)

This fall, students arrived back to George Washington University's campus, following almost a year and a half of online learning. Though masks may cover smiling faces, students’ hidden identities are revealed by personalized reusable water bottles in hand. As this act of self-expression works as a conversation starter and way to promote student clubs, the use of reusable water bottles works to use fewer single-use plastics on campus and furthers the goals of GW’s recent single-use plastics policy.

A person in a white t-shirt and flannel, head not pictured, holds a reusable, green plastic water bottle with a variety of stickers.
Zoe Warren, GW class of 2023. (Greer Blount/George Washington University)

In February 2021, while GW classes were held remotely due to COVID-19, the university implemented a policy to eliminate single-use plastics on GW property. The policy guide states university affiliates should refrain from using university funds to purchase single-use plastics for which there are available alternatives.

The switch to reusable water bottles saves an average of 156 water bottles per person in the United States per year, according to Earthday. The market for reusable water bottles was valued at 8.38 billion USD in 2020, according to Grand View Research, and is expected to grow in years to come.

The increase in popularity can inspire students to find stickers to encapsulate their personality, leading every water bottle to look different from the next. This act of personalization allows students to take ownership of their collective step towards more sustainable living.

A person in a blue sweatshirt, head not pitched, holds a read metal bottle which reads "Liam."
Liam MacDermott, GW class of 2022. (Greer Blount/George Washington University)

Liam MacDermott, a senior at George Washington University, said the personalized element to water bottles encourages students to make the switch. I asked him if he has seen a visual change on the GW campus since the plastics ban. 

"I have definitely seen a concerted effort to use recyclable or sustainable utensils in GW restaurants,” he said. “That was not happening my freshman year." 

As a senior, MacDermott's perspective on the plastics ban is quite different than most; around half of the undergraduate students on GW’s campus this fall had not taken an in-person class prior to this semester, due to the switch to remote learning during the pandemic, and so have no reference point for the visible changes the university has made.

Paige Valego, a junior at GW who was on campus for a semester and a half prior to the single-use plastics ban, said she hadn’t seen many plastic changes on campus, though she may have noticed a change more significantly if the campus had a traditional dining hall.

Indeed, GW’s dining plan poses a challenge in regard to the ban on single-use plastics. The university lacks a traditional dining hall on its main campus in Foggy Bottom and utilizes a “dining partner network” through which students use GW dining dollars at independent restaurants, grocery stores, and food trucks on campus. The university's plastic elimination plan acknowledged the campus dining partners, and stated that the university will collaborate and encourage dining partners on or near campus to offer alternatives to single-use plastics.  

Vallego explains that in efforts to live more sustainably on campus, she carries around a reusable water bottle and participates in Sustainable GW’s student-led composting program. 

A person in a navy George Washington University sweatshirt, head not pictured, holds a reusable plastic water bottle with many stickers.
Violet Radmacher-Willis, GW class of 2024. (Greer Blount/George Washington University)

Violet Radmacher-Willis, a sophomore, arrived on campus for the first time this fall. She finds being environmentally conscious at GW more complicated than at home in Oregon, where she said an effort to live sustainably is common. She said that although using a reusable water bottle is probably the most popular environmentally-friendly effort shared by students, it is challenging to find refill stations. 

According to Kimberly Williams, Interim Senior Associate at GW's Office of Sustainability, the university aims to install refill stations in every residence hall and academic building. Currently, there are 67 water bottle filling stations around campus. Williams noted that she understands the lack of resources makes it hard to participate in this sustainable culture shift, so is hopeful that the investment in resources that the university is making is helpful to make that culture shift happen quickly and broadly.

Radmacher-Willis echoed this sentiment, saying, “I have hope that, because people are becoming more aware of the benefits of reusable material, that both GW and members of the community will turn to more sustainable practices.”

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