Eager voices chattering, chairs and desks shifting into place on the science lab’s linoleum floor, Notre Dame Prep’s first “Friends of the Earth Club” meeting began during lunch on a rainy fall Friday. Excited to inform students and improve NDP, Environmental Science teacher Kandi Wojtysiak joined English teacher Jan Carteaux and senior Katie Eberle at the front of the room with a smile beaming across her face. 

“I’m so glad to see this many students here,” said Wojtysiak. Willing to give up their precious lunchtime to help improve sustainability on campus, over twenty NDP students from all grade levels sat in front of her. Introducing Katie Eberle, the club’s founder and organizer, Wojtysiak welcomed the group to brainstorm ideas for projects the club could pursue. 

Many of these ideas revolved around improving plastic waste and litter on campus. From installing new recycling bins to replacing plastic utensils in the cafeteria, students had countless suggestions for how “Friends of the Earth” could start making a difference. After outlining plans for future meetings, discussions with administration and proposals for the school board, “Friends of the Earth” was ready to make a difference. 

While plastic waste continues to raise concern as a pressing environmental issue, people around the world, including students at NDP, are hoping to create change. From enormous corporations reducing plastic use in their packaging to Notre Dame’s new “Friends of the Earth Club” working to improve campus recycling, every effort builds on the last to bring about long-term progress. 

Notre Dame students eat lunch outside of the cafeteria, where there are far more trash cans than recycling bins. NDP’s new “Friends of the Earth Club” has been approved to add new recycling bins for students and staff next semester. (Staff photo taken by Sophie O’Shei) 

Plastics 101: 

According to the Science History Institute, plastics can be defined as polymers that are “either synthetic or naturally occurring … [and] may be shaped when soft and then hardened to retain the given shape.” Naturally occurring polymers include tar and amber. The opposite of natural polymers are synthetic, or human-made, polymers. Synthetic polymers include polyethylene (found in plastic bags) and polystyrene (found in styrofoam). 

In a world centered on modern convenience, consumers and companies alike have widely accepted plastic due to its many beneficial qualities. Plastic is durable, lightweight, versatile and—most importantly—cheap. According to Our World in Data, after the first plastic was created in 1907, corporations began using the material for almost everything, and today plastic packaging is by far the number-one contributor to global plastic waste. Other sectors making a significant contribution to plastic waste include construction, textiles, electronics and transportation. 

Our World in Data recognizes how industrialized nations, such as the United States, Germany and China, produce the most plastic waste per capita, while developing nations, such as India, Mozambique and Bangladesh, produce significantly less. 

Though the quantity of plastic consumed on the world stage is drastic, the mere quantity does not explain why oceans and landfills are overflowing. For an explanation, one must turn to waste management. Since plastic takes nearly four-hundred years to degrade, most of it continues to exist long after it is discarded. As described by the National Geographic article, “A Whopping 91% of Plastic Isn’t Recycled,” incineration as a common method of waste disposal has not been effective in managing buildup. 

The article cites a lack of knowledge as part of the issue. A 2018 study by Roland Geyer from the Journal of Science Advances was the first one ever to attempt an analysis of all of the world’s plastic. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” said Roland Geyer in a recent interview with National Geographic. In other words, if countries do not start doing a better job quantifying their contributions to the issue of plastic waste, solutions will be out of reach. 

Plastic on Campus: 

In terms of quantifying waste on campus, a recent survey of a random sample of NDP students from all grade levels revealed that 84.3 percent buy a drink in a single-use plastic cup one to four times each week. On a scale of one to seven, the largest percentage of students, 26.3 percent, purchase a drink in a single-use plastic cup an average of three times every week. 

A poll of twenty random NDP students from all grade levels produced the above results. (Survey conducted by staff member Sophie O’Shei) 

In addition, the data revealed that over 40 percent of students surveyed place their recycling and trash in the correct bins on campus “sometimes” or “not at all.” On a positive note, 89.5 percent of respondents reported a belief that they could decrease their plastic waste with small changes. Also, nearly 90 percent of those surveyed reported using a reusable water bottle on a regular basis. 

Notre Dame senior Shireen Sadeghi recognizes the plastic waste crisis as a pressing global issue and wishes the problem would be addressed more widely on campus. 

Like many students, Sadeghi has made efforts to decrease her plastic waste but aspires to do more. For example, she carries her water in a thirty-two-ounce HydroFlask daily and purchases reusable grocery bags and coffee thermoses. “If everyone were to do something small, it would make a really large impact,” said Sadeghi. 

She supports the idea that all students can make small changes in their lives to decrease their consumption of single-use plastics, but something is holding them back. 

In her own life, Sadeghi recognizes that one of the factors preventing her from being more waste-free is that “right now as a student, there are only a few things [she] has under [her] control.” Since school administrators, parents, and other adults provide most of the items used by students on a day-to-day basis, those who hope to make changes are often unable to alter as many of their habits as they would like. But students can make some changes through personal choices. 

She supposes that some of the main issues prohibiting teenagers from reducing their plastic waste are a lack of opportunities, hectic schedules and a shortage of recognition in school settings. By this logic, if teenagers were given more information and resources—such as in their classes at school—they would have more initiative to take action when it comes to plastic use. One possible idea to solve this issue would be a Sustainability Elective at NDP where students could learn about how to live a more eco-friendly life. 

When it comes to activism on campus, AP Environmental Science and Astronomy teacher Kandi Wojtysiak is looking to incite change throughout the 2019-2020 school year. Through forming the new “Friends of the Earth Club” with NDP senior Katie Eberle, she hopes to inform students about the issue of plastic waste, along with other environmental issues, and to inspire them to act. 

Director of Student Activities Brenda Beers is also enthusiastic about this topic and possible campus changes in the future. She is “very supportive,” and hopes to play a role in helping the “Friends of the Earth Club” achieve its goals for NDP. 

Mrs. Woj confirmed that much of the contents in NDP’s blue “recycling” bins are not recycled. The root of the issue is that “kids keep contaminating it,” Wojtysiak said. She has even begun bringing her tests and cardboard boxes home to ensure they are recycled. 

Overall, NDP has “not stopped the recycling and the nightly cleaning crew deposits the garbage in the correct cans and recycling in the recycling cans,” said Principal Jill Platt. Even so, there is undoubtedly more students can do to prevent contamination, reduce plastic waste and develop more environmentally conscious habits in their daily lives. 

Beyond this, NDP could help in fostering the connection students feel to the natural world around them. To help students make wider changes in their lives, NDP “should ban single-use plastics,” Wojtysiak said. Possibilities for building this connection include the addition of more classes on sustainability and ecology and school-wide fundraisers for environmental charities. 

Read more about NDP students becoming “Friends of the Earth” here

Human Health and Plastic:  

Wojtysiak believes the average student at NDP could “absolutely” be more environmentally conscious with their plastic use. Part of this, she hypothesizes, is due to a lack of personal connection students feel to their environment. According to her, the motivation to change needs to be “personal and direct.” One aspect of the plastic waste crisis that affects students directly—and which Wojtysiak is especially interested in—involves microplastics. 

According to Dr. Ramakrishnan Nara of Food Safety Magazine, the NOAA (US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has defined microplastics as “small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long that can be harmful to marine and freshwater organisms.” Since they are so small, these plastic fragments, which are often toxic, are able to escape filtration systems, causing major environmental and food safety concerns. 

As described by Food Safety Magazine, the average American consumes approximately one-hundred kilograms of plastic each year through microplastics and other sources of plastic contamination. Most of this plastic enters the food web in the form of plastic packaging, though cosmetics and textiles are major contributors as well. To put it in perspective, one-hundred kilograms is the average weight of a baby elephant. On the other hand, people in Asia consume only twenty kilograms of plastic per person annually. 

Another source of these ingested microplastics, summarized by Nara, comes from the fishing and agriculture industries. Recent studies from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have found that eleven of the twenty-five most common commercial fish species contain microplastics. As humanity is on the top of the global food chain, microplastics from all lower levels are able to accumulate in humans in a process known as biological magnification. 

While the long-term effects of humans ingesting microplastics are unknown, scientists have deduced that microplastics often act as transporters for other toxic environmental contaminants that have the potential to impair bodily functions. These contaminants include chemicals like styrene, phthalates and BPA. 

Wojtysiak briefly taught about microplastics in her AP Environmental Science class. “It’s really scary … [and] we don’t usually learn about these kinds of important topics in school,” said senior and AP Environmental Science student Samantha Wetherell. Both Wojtysiak and Wetherell believe that adding more environmental content to high school curricula will help develop a more aware and active generation of adults. 

Marine Life and Plastic: 

Beyond humans, wildlife and other organisms within global ecosystems suffer greatly at the hands of plastic pollution. According to the article “The Problem of Marine Plastic Pollution” published by Clean Water Action, 80 percent of marine plastic pollution comes about as a result of runoff from land sources. These sources include debris from construction, litter, trash from ports and marinas, waste from industrial facilities and garbage blown from full containers. 

The majority of municipal solid waste are plastic food containers and packaging. From 1997 to 2007, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation measured a five-fold increase of plastic waste in the Central Pacific Gyre, with “the baseline in 1997 [showing] plastic pieces outnumbered plankton on the ocean surface 6:1.” 

As outlined by Clean Water Action, plastic pollution injures and kills millions of seabirds, fish and marine mammals annually through starvation, ingestion, suffocation, drowning, infection and entanglement. Scientists estimate that nearly 267 species have been affected by marine plastic waste increases. 

One specific example is elaborated on in “The Problem of Marine Plastic Pollution.” In 2010, a group of researchers performed an autopsy on a grey whale that washed up on shore of the Puget Sound. They found, among other items, a pair of pants, a golf ball, more than twenty plastic bags, duct tape, small towels and surgical gloves. 

Most of the animals whom plastic waste affects do not wash up on shore, and this instance is far from an anomaly. For example, surface-feeding birds are prone to consuming floating plastic debris and, very often, these birds feed the colorful “food” to their chicks, causing detrimental problems when it comes to the growth and survival of their lungs. 

In addition to injuring and killing marine life, plastic debris also act as transport methods for many harmful microorganisms, according to Clean Water Action. Organic pollutants (such as bacteria and parasites) in marine environments consistently attach to plastic debris, leading to the spread of pollutants that can kill larger animals and invasive marine species that can disrupt ecosystems. 

In response to hearing these facts, senior Shireen Sadeghi brought up how she has seen issues of plastic waste “spread a lot in the media” in recent months. For example, she remembers the enormous push for reusable straws in an effort to help marine life that reached its peak of popularity a few months ago. 

Sadeghi appreciates these efforts and is confident they have the potential to make an impact, but she would like to see more students support environmental issues—like plastic waste—in a context larger than the latest instance of social media activism, a practice that is too often short-term and superficial. 

Corporate Efforts to Reduce Plastic Waste: 

Due to these detrimental effects of plastic waste, as well as concerns about climate change and other environmental issues, have led a number of major corporations to begin making changes. These include Starbucks Corp., Walmart Inc. and McDonald’s Corp. By phasing in modifications, companies will make their production and sale more sustainable and will reduce their overall waste production. 

According to BBC News, in 2018, Starbucks Corp. announced that it would be phasing out plastic straws in 28,000 of its stores leading up to 2020. To replace straws, customers are given plastic lids designed for either use without a straw or with a reusable/biodegradable (metal, glass, paper, etc.) straw. Some consumers have complained about the use of plastic lids specifically, but the company believes it is a step in the right direction for the time being. 

Freshman and avid Starbucks customer Samantha Harrod is excited about the company’s plans when it comes to plastic waste. “If a small change like that on such a large scale could help the planet, then it is definitely worth it,” said Harrod. Even small changes, when made on the corporate level, make an enormous impact. 

According to the journal Plastics Engineering, at Walmart Inc.’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, the corporation issued a set of plastic waste reduction goals in Feb. 2019. Through altering packaging for its wide range of privately branded products, Walmart plans on working with its suppliers to achieve its sustainability goals. These include transitioning to all recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging by 2025, adding “how-to-recycle” labels to a wide array of products and targeting to use at least 20 percent post-consumer materials in packaging in the next five years. 

As described by Climate Action’s website, McDonald’s Corp.—as a chain with nearly 36,000 restaurants around the world—has the capacity to make a widespread impact when implementing sustainability improvements. The company has ensured that 100 percent of its packaging will be sourced from renewable, recycled and sustainable sources within the next eight years. The company’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Francesa DeBiase, hopes these efforts will inspire other large corporations to be proactive. 

The Future and More You Can Do: 

Attending a college focused on sustainability and environmental activism can also help students enact change. According to Best College Reviews, the top three “greenest” colleges in the United States include UNC Chapel Hill, Iowa State University, and the University of Virginia. ASU also appears on the list in sixth place. 

Many of these schools implement practices such as the construction of energy-efficient buildings and parking, reduction of water use and on-campus environmental volunteer opportunities. NDP could use some of these concepts, such as the installation of solar panels, as methods to become a more sustainable campus. 

From “Friends of the Earth” at NDP increasing campus sustainability to Fortune 500 corporations altering their practices to be more environmentally friendly, every solution contributes to a greener future. To learn more or make a difference through donating, a number of organizations leading the movement against plastic waste can be found below: