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UNC students work to eliminate single-use plastics on campus

DTH Photo Illustration. Students involved in NCPIRG’s UNC-Chapel Hill branch are campaigning for the university to eliminate the usage of single use plastics on campus this semester.

About 30 UNC students met over Zoom on Sunday afternoon to discuss one thing: plastic. 

Members of UNC’s chapter of the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group attended the meeting, where they discussed the University’s use of plastic products and impact on the environment. This semester, the organization seeks to encourage UNC to eliminate single-use plastics. 

NCPIRG is an activist group that advocates for “a healthier, safer world in which we’re freer to pursue our own individual well-being and the common good," according to its website. NCPIRG is a member of the larger organization PIRG, a federation of state-level activist groups.

“Our mission is to create the future that young people want to see,” Katie Craig, the organizing director for NCPIRG Students and UNC’s NCPIRG campus coordinator, said. “We want to create a greener, healthier, more meaningful future by training and organizing young folks in how to work on public interest.”

Sarah Jefcoat, a member of UNC's chapter, said that while students working with NCPIRG have different simultaneous campaigns — such as voter registration and college affordability — the organization chooses one project to focus on each semester.

“This semester, our main campaign is the campus sustainability campaign,” Jefcoat said.

Jefcoat is the grasstops coordinator of the Campus Sustainability Project, meaning she is in charge of reaching out to campus administration and the local community for the project. This semester, UNC's chapter of NCPIRG aims to get the University to sign the Post-Landfill Action Network’s #BreakFreeFromPlastic Campus Pledge.

The pledge would commit the University to establishing a task force dedicated to eliminating single-use plastics on-campus and replacing them with reusable alternatives.

“The University has been working with NCPIRG for several months and we have had a series of meetings about single use plastics," Mike Piehler, chief sustainability officer and special assistant to the Chancellor for sustainability, said in a statement. "NCPIRG has provided us with perspective from their experiences with other universities throughout the country."

In the statement, Piehler said that, while the COVID-19 pandemic has made it necessary to use single-use plastics for public health, the University is committed to plastic waste reduction.

"As we transition Carolina’s sustainability platform to Sustainable Carolina, waste reduction, and plastic waste reduction in particular, will be a key priority," Piehler said in the statement.

The campaign to eliminate single-use plastics at UNC is still young, but member Hannah Elkins is hopeful that NCPIRG’s organizing efforts will be enough to accomplish their goal. 

“Working on this has been very interesting and exciting to me, even though we’re just getting started,” Elkins said. “We have a lot of student support already and people are very interested and generally invested in this topic.”

In addition to opportunities to work on issues they care about, students said they appreciate the skills that NCPIRG helps them to develop. Media Coordinator Elie Zakhem and CSP Campaign Coordinator Peyton Lindogan both said their work with NCPIRG has improved their communication and leadership skills. 

“You get to learn better ways to lead meetings, to plan, to organize,” Zakhem said. “I think that, even after I’m done with it, that it’s given me so much that I can use in my life later on.”

Lindogan said he believes widespread support is the key not only to the Campus Sustainability Project, but to all of NCPIRG’s campaigns. 

“Alone we can only do so much, but together we can accomplish a ton,” Lindogan said in Wednesday’s meeting. “That’s why we organize.”

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