WMU Cuts Back on Plastic Pollution

Stephanie Burke

Foam, or Styrofoam, and plastic products have become a convenience of the modern world.

Foam is polystyrene, a chemical compound, and is manufactured from petroleum. Other plastics, like pop bottles or plastic bags, are polyethylene terephthalates, another chemical compound, said Michael Barcelona, professor of chemistry at WMU. Producing foam and plastic products ends with the creation of a solid, which is a state of matter in which molecules remain dormant and the material holds a permanent shape. This type of matter is difficult for the environment to degrade.

“We need to educate a generation that will look at things differently and no longer be so clueless about what the real cost of items we purchase are,” Barcelona said.

Foam and plastic products are dense and stable, and they essentially do not decompose, Barcelona said.

Oxygen is needed for foams and plastics to biodegrade or breakdown. Landfills contain large amounts of organic matter that use up the available oxygen, which slows the breakdown of plastic waste. So, instead, foam and plastic products end up covered in dirt and go through an anaerobic breakdown, decomposing without oxygen. Through this process, foams and plastics emit methane gas back into the environment, and this gas contributes to global change, Barcelona said.

“Plastic is a (one-time-use solution), not a smart use of resources,” Barcelona said. “Plastic pollution shows humans’ insult on oceans and other resources.”

At WMU efforts are underway to be a more eco-friendly campus. The University was named a Campus Sustainability Leader and earned a ‘B’ grade for the College Sustainability Report Card written by the Sustainable Endowments Institute in 2009. The University has been improving the level of “green” efforts on campus and raised their grade from last year’s ‘C.’

In the fall when WMU students are moving into the dorms, 80 percent of the waste produced is cardboard and Styrofoam products, said Doug Carney, manager of facilities and contract administrator at WMU.

Two years ago WMU began to collect the recyclable waste during fall move-in and successfully reduced Styrofoam and cardboard waste by 40 percent, Carney said.

The program’s success led to the purchase of carts that house four different waste cans used for separating recyclables, including one can for plastics and another for polystyrene foam products, Carney said.

“There is a huge population of students that has the opportunity to do what is right,” he said. “If we reduce the (loads of trash) from dumpsters going to landfills by 50 percent, that is a lot of trash.”

A sustainability solution created by WMU Dining Services to cut back Styrofoam waste was switching to small Enviroware-brand biodegradable containers this fall, Judy Gipper, dining services director said.

WMU has also accepted the student-designed EcoMug as a way to reduce the use of Styrofoam cups, Gipper said.

The EcoMug came into play for the first time this semester and was given to all new, incoming students.

To encourage use of the EcoMug, campus cafés give a 20 percent discount to EcoMug users and some local businesses offer discounts as well, including, Bagel Beanery, Biggby Coffee, Food Dance, Irving’s Market, The Strutt and Water Street Coffee Joint, Gipper said.

“Sustainability is a point of extreme interest among people, I don’t think it is a fad” Gipper said. “It is well known that we can’t keep going on like this. We will run out of resources and pollute our earth.”

Taylor Dilley, a 21-year-old senior at WMU, carries a reusable water bottle and coffee mug with her while on campus to avoid using multiple one-time-use containers.

“It is easier to carry these with me, and I always have water to drink,” Dilley said.

Dilley acknowledges WMU’s recycling efforts and said they are effective and improving.

“A lot can be made with recycled goods and we are running out of landfill space, there is too much junk polluting the earth” Dilley said.

WMU recycles 6,000 to 8,000 pounds of glass, plastic and metal waste monthly, Carolyn Noack, recycling and waste reduction manager said.

“I think we are doing a fair job and it’s improving,” Noack said of WMU’s recycling efforts.

Plastics labeled one through seven are collected for recycling at WMU. This number is located in the center of the three recycling arrows printed on the products. Other plastics, such as bread bags, grocery bags and cling wrap are collected separately and transported to a vendor in Schoolcraft, Mich. where they are properly recycled.

“Plastic takes a very long time to break down,” Noack said. “It is unsightly. It is dangerous to animals that ingest it or get caught in it. And it uses a significant amount of our natural resources.”

Recycled plastic can be made into plastic containers, toys, car parts and furniture, for example. By recycling plastic, transportation and use of natural resources are reduced, Noack said.

“In almost all cases, it is best to reduce your waste first, reuse what you can, then recycle, then landfill or incinerate,” she said