Emory signs 'Break Free From Plastic' pledge

Emory Report | June 16, 2021

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On June 15, President Gregory L. Fenves met with leaders of the student-led Plastic Free Emory Project and signed the “Break Free from Plastic” pledge, which outlines a five-year plan for reducing unnecessary single-use plastics on Emory’s Atlanta and Oxford campuses.

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Gana Ahn
gana.ahn@emory.edu

President Gregory L. Fenves met with leaders of the student-led initiative Plastic Free Emory Project on June 15 and signed the “Break Free from Plastic Pledge,” which outlines a five-year plan for reducing unnecessary single-use plastics on Emory’s Atlanta and Oxford campuses. 

By 2026, Emory University and Oxford College pledge to:

  • Establish a Plastic Free Task Force to engage stakeholders to enact the pledge.
  • Implement a year-by-year single-use plastics reduction strategy.
  • Continue to use viable alternatives and implement purchasing guidelines to eliminate the procurement of unnecessary single-use plastics in the future.
  • Further invest in education, resources and infrastructure to reduce single-use plastics on individual and institutional levels.
  • Increase efforts to eliminate plastic bags, plastic straws and styrofoam in accordance with the City of Atlanta’s Ordinance 19-O-1418.

A nationally recognized sustainability leader, Emory is the first higher education institution in Georgia to make a pledge of this kind and the only active student-led campaign in the state, according to Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN). The pledge reinforces Emory’s commitment to divert 95 percent of its waste from landfills by 2025, reduce Emory’s total greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050. 

“We applaud the student leaders of the Plastic Free Emory Project who have done an exemplary job of presenting the pledge to senior leadership and gaining support from a broad coalition of campus stakeholders,” says Ciannat Howett, associate vice president for resilience, sustainability and economic inclusion. “We join them in celebrating this commitment by Emory to single-use plastics reduction in support of our Sustainability Vision and the City of Atlanta’s efforts.” 

Students CJ O’Brien and Nithya Narayanaswamy co-founded Plastic Free Emory.

“This pledge shows that student-led activism has the power to enact real change,” says O’Brien, who graduated this year from Emory’s Laney Graduate School with a master’s degree in development practice. “College campuses are essentially ‘living laboratories,’ where students have the unique opportunity to create sustainability projects at a small scale, that can then be translated to implement change in the real world, on a larger scale. By passing this pledge we will be joining a global movement, and we hope it will inspire even more campuses, businesses and cities in Georgia and beyond to adopt a plan to phase out unnecessary single-use plastic.”

O’Brien adds, “As young people, we know that we must take action against plastic pollution for the sake of future generations, and we cannot do it alone. We thank Emory University and President Fenves for taking this step and committing to such an important initiative in his first year of presidency.”

Narayanaswamy completed her first two years at Emory’s Oxford College this year and will continue to Emory College on the Atlanta campus in the fall.

“The ‘Break Free From Plastic Pledge’ is a testament to the power of unity in diversity within the Emory community,” she says. “Each step of this incredible journey towards sustainability has been possible only because of the diverse perspectives and experiences that have come together from our fellow students, advisers and stakeholders.”

Narayanaswamy notes, “Addressing the single-use plastics crisis means tapping into the plurality that unites us, and that is exactly what this pledge represents; Our stories, voices and power united to create change. We are excited to see Emory University take steps towards tackling the single-use plastics crisis.”

Reduce, repair, restore, reuse 

The pledge will support a cultural shift at Emory towards a “reduce, repair, restore and reuse” mentality, encouraging materials reuse and mindful consumption and seeking to bridge the gap between personal responsibility and institutional policy.

Pollutants from plastic production, use and disposal are a significant and growing source of harm to both human and planetary health. Phasing out single-use plastics is a critical step toward source reductions, which the Environmental Protection Agency classifies as “the highest impact form of pollution prevention.” Reducing unnecessary single-use plastic is crucial to fighting for environmental justice as plastic has a hand in climate change and exploiting communities of color, international communities and the natural environment.

In 2018, PLAN created a global #BreakFreeFromPlastic campus pledge, which provided a guideline and useful tools to eliminate single-use plastic on college and university campuses. To date, over 60 colleges and universities have active student-led campaigns and 16 have officially signed PLAN’s “Break Free From Plastic” pledge.

Emory’s pledge aligns with the City of Atlanta’s recently enacted ordinance to eliminate plastic bags, plastic straws and styrofoam and sets a roadmap for eradication of unnecessary single-use plastics in the community.

The next step for Plastic Free Emory involves putting together a Plastic Free Task Force to follow through on the five-year plan detailed in the pledge. The Plastic Free Task Force will continue to engage with Emory stakeholders, administrative groups, departments and students, and research viable alternatives to help Emory “break free” from plastic.

Plastic Free Emory is recruiting motivated members from diverse departments, backgrounds and majors for the task force. To apply to the Plastic Free Task Force, visit tinyurl.com/PlasticFreeTaskforce. For more information or questions, email nsnaray@emory.edu.