Raising awareness on reducing plastics

New booklet and campus event challenge community to change behaviour

Mount Royal University is working to cut down on single-use plastics.

The movement to reduce single-use plastics ― from straws to shopping bags to water bottles ― is gaining ground.

Simple ways to achieve those reductions is the subject of a new booklet, written by two Mount Royal University science and technology faculty members, and a campus event to raise awareness of the issue.

40 Days & 40 Ways to Reduce Single-use Plastic, by Ruth Pickett-Seltner, PhD, associate professor in biology and Celeste MacConnachie, PhD, associate professor in chemistry, was produced in partnership with MRU’s Institute for Environmental Sustainability, the Trico Changemaker Studio and the Faculty of Science and Technology. The booklet will encourage people on campus, as well as the community, to make changes in how they both view and use plastic.

Inspiration for the project came to Seltner when she took part in an MRU field school in India. She said in some ways India is ahead of Canada in terms of reducing plastic use, through bans of plastic bags, for example.

“They’ve recognized the need to reverse this. If you look at a landfill in India and a landfill in Calgary, you would be hard pressed to determine which one was where. Now I really notice when I go to the grocery store that you can’t get vegetables without plastic, for example. You notice what we do for convenience.”

Beginning with a short history of plastics, the booklet outlines why they are a problem.

“The very properties that make plastics terrific in so many applications that better our lives are the very properties that are problematic in other areas,” MacConnachie says, whose interest in plastics began as a child enthralled with the material that made up her toys. That interest in these seemingly “magical” properties piqued her interest in chemistry.

“Strength, durability, heat, water, and chemical resistance, for instance, mean that they can withstand the rigours of their ‘job conditions,’ but that means that they also withstand very well the conditions of the natural environment. And so they accumulate and interfere with all manner of natural processes and life cycles, in ways that are often unpredictable and devastating.”

The booklet’s “things you can do” include carrying a coffee mug, buying in bulk using your own containers, avoiding single-use condiment packages, giving gifts of experience, buying clothes second hand and skipping the glitter (a micro-plastic) when crafting.

“They all make a difference ― I’d say concentrate on one or two at a time until they become a habit. Then progress through the list,” MacConnachie says.

Increase your plastic awareness on Feb. 26

Photo of Ruth Pickett-Seltner.

Ruth Pickett-Seltner, PhD, poses with a draft of the short history of plastics booklet in the Riddell Library and Learning Centre.

The content in 40 Days and 40 Ways was written initially in cooperation with Calgary Alliance for the Common Good, but has been updated and rebranded. The booklet will be introduced at a Feb. 26 event, organized by Seltner and MRU director of changemaking Natalie Meisner, called Plastic Paradise: Documentary Film Screening and Plastic-Free Open House.

The event at MRU’s Leacock Theatre starts at 5 p.m. and features booths for Plastic Free YYC, the City of Calgary’s Waste and Recycling team and other guests, including a performance artist and a poet. Lightning talks by people doing research and grassroots work on waste reduction will be followed at 7 p.m. by Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a documentary focused on the harmful effects of ocean plastics.

While the event represents a desire to eliminate single-use plastic water bottles from campus, Seltner acknowledges that could take time. Recently, however, there seems to be a shift in attitudes toward plastics, particularly plastic bags and straws.

“A lot of recent changes are in anticipation of legislation, which is fine,” Seltner says. “But I think if you make it popular then people are going to do it. The ones I find have the most resistance are my generation. The students have their own water bottles; they get it. It’s the rest of us who are so used to convenience.”

Seltner says there has been some great work on these issues at Mount Royal from SAMRU and the University’s Sustainability Committee.

“We need to continue the conversation. Events like this bring awareness but not necessarily change unless we act. This event is also about fun. It’s educational but with experiential, hands-on learning.”

Find out about the many initiatives Mount Royal is undertaking to reduce its environmental footprint.

Feb. 24, 2020 — Peter Glenn

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