The University of California released a new policy on Aug. 24 requiring all 10 UC campuses to eliminate all non-essential single-use plastics by 2030.

UCSB joined a coalition of universities to phase out plastic use in January 2015. Max Abrams / Daily Nexus

The policy came as a collaborative achievement between the UC system and California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG), a student-run and student-funded environmental non-profit that has been campaigning to ditch single-use plastics. CALPIRG students collected over 12,000 signatures for the Plastic-Free Seas campaign since August 2019 and sponsored student government resolutions, according to a press release from CALPIRG.

The policy requires each UC campus to convene with a written update to their waste management plan, including the elimination of non-essential single-use plastics, by 2023.

Ryan Bell, associate director of sustainability of the University of California Office of the President (UCOP), said in a press conference that the most viable solution to tackle the plastic crisis is targeting it at the purchasing level.

“This is becoming every day more clear than ever that we won’t be able to recycle our way to zero waste. The only real solution is to avoid the generation of problem materials before they have to be managed at the end of their lives,” Bell said.

The policy includes plans to replace single-use food service items, like plates or cups, with compostable or reusable alternatives by July 1, 2022 and to phase out plastic bags by the end of 2020. In addition, single-use dining accessories, such as straws, are planned to be replaced with compostable or reusable alternatives by July 1, 2021, and plastic bottles should be eliminated by Jan. 1, 2023, according to Bell. 

The policy also encourages campuses to make sustainability plans an ongoing effort by consistently updating their waste management protocol. 

CALPIRG has also been working with the UCOP Department of Energy and Sustainability to rid college campuses of the throw-away culture that plagues oceans and landfills, according to Bell.

According to an interview with UC Berkeley CALPIRG Chapter Chair Valerie Nyguen, each of the 10 campuses plan on integrating the policy autonomously. UC Los Angeles has already made the commitment for this winter, UC Berkeley will begin phasing out non-essential single-use plastics this spring and UCSB joined a coalition of universities to phase out plastic use in January 2015. 

Young Grguras, the campus campaign director for Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN), said in an interview that the integration period for eliminating single-use plastic “is essentially a switch that could happen pretty fast.” Clear and proper signage around campus and educating university students about waste systems is crucial to making the change, Grguras said.

“We use college campuses as a vector for change, we see them as places that have a lot of resources, a lot of really engaged young people, so they are great places to put these types of policies,” Grguras said.

According to Bell, the impact of a decreased plastic waste stream will be multiplied throughout the 10 UC campuses and five medical centers. 

“[The UC’s] purchasing power and leadership in California will push industries to change their products and packaging to be more sustainable, while also reducing the price of these single-use plastic alternatives, making it easier for other places to go plastic free,” Nicole Haynes, CALPIRG’s statewide Plastic-Free Seas coordinator, said in a press conference.

Two statewide bills, the Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, SB-54 and AB-1080, require businesses to cut down material production, eliminate unnecessary packaging and make products recyclable, according to Ben Allen, California State Senator from the 26th District. 

“This type of switch is essential to our health,” Grguras said. “Covid is about staying healthy, and not using single-use plastic is also about staying healthy.”