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University of California Campuses Miss the Mark on Recycling

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The University of California’s recent announcement that it would begin phasing out plastic products across all campuses suffers from the same flaws as most plastic bans. This short-sighted policy will ultimately do more harm than good, especially in its aims to eliminate all essential single-use plastics by 2030—even in research labs.

University of California campuses have been trying to eliminate plastic waste since 2008. despite each campus taking a unique approach, all have failed to meet their targets. UC San Diego especially struggled with the strategy, diverting only 38% of its plastic waste from landfill streams as of 2018. Nurit Katz, UCLA’s Chief Sustainability Officer, puts the failures on various external factors, including “turmoil in the international recycling markets and the limitations of local waste haulers.”

By comparison UC Berkley achieved a 54% rate of plastic waste diversion, but is still struggling to meet the aggressively set 90% diversion threshold. To get there, the campus is planning on eliminating all essential single-use plastics by 2030. This means it plans to replace plastic products in research, administration, events, and campus academics, a decision that will cost students and faculty dearly.

Applying the ban to university research activities is particularly troubling. Plastics are critical to laboratory operations and shifting away from them will prove a challenging task. One analysis  by Chemical and Engineering News found that replacing plastic petri dishes used for cell cultures with glass would make operating a lab 30 times more expensive.

Labs also rely on plastic for maintaining sterile environments, a necessity for research. Unlike reusable products like glass and metal, plastic instruments are newly opened for each use instead of re-used. Rather than forgoing the benefits of sterile plastics, labs at the University of California could instead choose plastic products that are more easily recyclable and that are constructed with less plastic to minimize their waste footprints.

Berkley’s move parallels statewide efforts to ban plastic products that have also failed. In September, the California legislature rejected a bill from the state Assembly that would have mandated a 75% reduction in single-use plastic packaging, utensils, straws, containers and other foodware dumped into landfills.

The bill’s opponents argue that plastic products are critical to restaurants, hospitals and other entities, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis. Requiring these businesses to ditch plastics altogether would exaggerate the already-tremendous financial burden they face in the midst of the pandemic and would present them with an unrealistic ultimatum: go without plastic or go under.

Another troubling component of the California legislation is that it relies on local recycling programs to recycle all plastic products. Once again, this is unrealistic, as the Consumer Brands Association explains:

“Recyclable packaging only works if the recycling system does – and today, it doesn’t. It’s a patchwork of rules unique to the more than four hundred local programs across California. What’s worse, as the economics of recycling have become more challenging, counties and towns across the country have reduced their list of acceptable items, often no longer taking commonly recycled items like glass, or shuttered entirely.”

In the end, outright bans on plastic products can lead to more waste. Manufacturing, using and recycling plastics tends to create less waste while using less energy compared to alternative materials. Glass, cotton and paper all have well-documented sustainability concerns.

The University of California campuses would be better served to continue striving to reduce waste and improve recycling, but ditching plastics won’t help reduce campus waste and lessen carbon footprints. Instead, campuses should explore more impactful solutions to waste management, like improving their local recycling systems and buying plastic products that are constructed with less plastic.

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