Turning Plastic into Policy

By: Sean Hansen

At just 24 years old, Boyan Slat is a youthful Dutchman with a passion for conservation, and an incredible drive to clean up the world’s oceans. He’s devoted the past five years of his life to fighting marine pollution through designing an innovative waste catchment system to trap and collect ocean plastic that is currently being implemented in the Pacific Ocean. His work earned him a spot in TIME Magazine’s list of best inventions, a United Nations’ ‘Champion of the Earth’ laureate, and over $35 million in funding for his NGO, The Ocean Cleanup.

Like many of us here at SIPA, Boyan Slat is a problem-solver; someone who studied an intractable public policy challenge that no one had even been willing to tackle, and designed a novel solution that investors and the public could get behind. While it’s too early to determine if his idea will succeed in cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the drive, determination, and vision of Slat are things that we, as aspiring policymakers, can appreciate and strive towards.

But if eliminating marine pollution throughout the entire Pacific Ocean sounds daunting to you, that’s because it is. For those of us who are inclined to act on a somewhat smaller scale, there are countless ways we can change our everyday behavior to become more environmentally conscious and future-oriented. Below are just a few ways in which Columbia makes it easy for us to shift our behavior – to be more sustainable, become better stewards of our planet, and better advocate for environmentally sustainable policies. 

1.     Cut down on plastic waste. Each year, about 8 million metric tons of plastic finds its way into the ocean. And while Columbia may have earned several accolades in the 2018 Sustainable Campus Index, it still faces a major challenge in addressing plastic waste. Just hang around after any campus events or functions, and watch the amount of food and plastic waste that is discarded day in and day out. Although some cities are starting to move away from single-use plastics (including New York), as a society we need to break away from the comfort and convenience that plastics provide us. Carry a reusable water bottle, coffee mug, or grocery bag. Invest in glass or metal containers as an alternative to plastic Tupperware, and choose to bring a fork with you to eat your lunch instead of grabbing a throw-away plastic one. Try to avoid buying clothes that use synthetic fibers, which contribute to harmful microbead pollution.

2.     Step up recycling. 75% of waste is recyclable, but only about 30% makes it to the proper recycling bins. Columbia University has a comprehensive recycling program divided into two categories: 1) Green bins for mixed paper & cardboard; and 2) blue bins for metal, glass, plastics, & cartons. Recognizing that as students we’re often rushing to class or to grab a free slice of pizza at an event, we can all step up our impact by taking just a moment to sort our trash—both on campus and at home. Educate yourself on the different types of plastic; which can be recycled, and which are the most toxic (see PVC plastics). The labels on Columbia’s trash bins can also be confusing to some; take a look here for a more thorough breakdown of Columbia’s recycling system.

3.     Travel sustainably. The transportation industry is the leading source of carbon pollution in the U.S., contributing 75% of all carbon monoxide pollution and nearly a third of total greenhouse gas emissions. Choosing alternate means of transportation – a la Citi-Bikes, a personal bike, public transport, or simply carpooling – can be a huge factor in reducing the number of cars on the road, thus driving down emissions. Moreover, Columbia received the top performer award in transportation sustainability from last year’s Sustainable Campus Index. Columbia’s decision to phase out its diesel-powered campus shuttles and replace them with a fleet of electric busses will reduce emissions by 70% on campus, making it even easier to travel throughout Morningside Heights sustainably.

4.     Eat Responsibly. Changing your eating habits is tough. But it’s also one of the most effective means to combat climate change and global warming. Animal agriculture accounts for between 10-20% of greenhouse gas emissions – making it the second largest contributor to man-made greenhouse gases. Aside from the release of methane, however, animal farming also demands significant agricultural, water, land, and energy resources that exacerbate environmental stress. With a quickly growing world population, shifting resources from animal farming to agricultural farming could produce a much larger yield of vegetables, at a much lower environmental cost. This isn’t to say you need to give up meat entirely and move towards veganism (although that is what the United Nations recommends...) – it can be as simple as going meat-free once or twice a week, or phasing out dairy products.  

5.     Get Engaged. There are countless opportunities at Columbia to get involved in sustainability on and off campus. Check out the Earth Institute’s Center for Sustainability, which hosts events and offers fellowships for pioneering research ideas in sustainability. Join SIPA’s Environmental Coalition (ECO), which strives to build a community of like-minded environmentally conscious students and organize events around sustainability – including an upcoming week-long trek through Costa Rica to learn about organic farming, permaculture, and biodiversity. And earlier this month, Columbia hosted the 16th annual All Ivy Environmental and Sustainable Development Career Fair – which aims to connect environmentally sustainable businesses and organizations with likeminded students.

It can be easy to dismiss the impact of these individual actions. But collectively, these choices add up and contribute to a wider environmental movement that is rapidly growing. Whether you are ridding the ocean of several hundred metric tons of plastic waste or simply refusing a plastic grocery bag, SIPA encourages us to be forward-thinking practitioners -- and to reflect on those choices we make.