Atrium replaces plastic bags with paper today

Plastic bags will no longer be available for students to use to carry out meals from the Atrium starting Monday. In their place, paper bags will be available, though students are encouraged to forgo single-use bags altogether. 

The removal of plastic bags is the result of more than two years of collaborative work between the NC State Stewards, a student organization, and the University Sustainability Office. The Stewards’ Waste Reduction Committee has been taking steps toward making NC State a bag-free campus since the organization was founded in fall 2013, starting with the plastic bag recycling program. The paper bags are a temporary phase as the university continues to work toward removing single-use bags altogether. 

“We would like to move towards removing all single-use bags from our facilities eventually, but it will have to be a gradual change, and this is part of that transition,” said Chris Dunham, Nutrition and Sustainability Specialist at NC State, in an email. 

Reusable bags will be available for students to purchase at the Atrium and will be sold at cost, not for profit.

Before bringing the idea to the administration, the organization reached out to students to discuss the switch and accumulated more than 1,000 signatures on its Reduce the Use pledge. The removal of plastic bags from the Atrium will serve as a test run for the university to gauge student reactions. The university plans to remove plastic bags from the C-stores in mid-April. 

“It will be a good opportunity for the administration of NC State to see how this is received by the student body,” said Carlo Zanelli, a master’s student studying economics and a member of the Waste Reduction Committee. “It’s awesome that they’re able to do it so soon, which we didn’t expect.” 

Although paper bags still contribute to waste, the NC State Stewards recognize the removal of plastic bags as an important step in the process toward becoming a bag-free campus. They hope students will notice the switch and become more aware of their decision to take a bag. 

“We think even subconsciously, it’s going to change people’s perceptions and thinking process when they do decide to get food and they have that kind of small question cross their minds of whether they should take a bag or not,” Zanelli said.

The change comes as the ban on plastic bags continues to expand nationwide. In September 2014, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill banning single-use plastic bags at large retail stores in the state. North Carolina banned plastic bags in the Outer Banks region in 2009, but in 2011 a tornado hit the city of Dunn, the region’s major paper bag distribution center, leading the state to temporarily suspend the ban. The ban has not yet been restored.

The Stewards credited the university setting as part of the reason for their success in implementing the change.  

“We’re more of a group,” said Mary Keilhauer, a junior studying environmental engineering and a member of the Waste Removal Committee. “Campus Enterprises is within NC State, and C-stores are all connected, so as far as working with employees and stuff like that, we don’t have a lot of hurdles that a lot of other communities would have.”

This project is specifically aimed at removing plastic bags, but the Waste Reduction Committee has bigger goals in mind as well.

“It’s really about single-use plastics and single-use items on campus that can turn into waste or goes to the landfill,” said Annie Lopez, a junior studying biological and agricultural engineering and the project lead for the plastic bag removal. “Our ultimate goal is to have no single-use waste items on campus.” 

The Stewards are in the beginning stages of forming a reusable bag share program within the C-stores that would allow students to borrow cloth bags when they forget to bring their own. 

“We really are hoping to change the culture on campus to something more sustainable and that mindset of thinking about what you’re using and what waste you’re producing, even though you may not have thought about it before,” Lopez said. “We hope students will think about it more.”

In addition to the Waste Reduction Committee, the NC State Stewards also work toward increasing sustainability through projects related to composting, upcycling, gardening, energy and educating peers. 

“I believe that we are one of the most sustainable universities in the state,” Dunham said. “We have made great strides in reducing food waste, diverting waste from the landfill, and reducing plastic use around campus.”