PASUP hosted a panel discussion on January 23, 2022, in which students from Allegheny College, Carnegie Mellon University, Chatham University, University of Pittsburgh, and West Virginia University spoke about efforts to reduce single-use plastic on campus, how these efforts were affected by the pandemic, and new improvements they hope to implement. Watch the video here!

Here’s a quick summary of some of the plastic-slashing ideas universities are using:


This reusable, returnable container for take-out food is in use at Allegheny, Pitt, and WVU.  Students get food in a Greenbox from university dining facilities, return the empty Greenbox to a machine and get a token, then use the token to get another Greenbox of food.  The token represents a deposit which will be lost if the student fails to return the Greenbox.

Universities that had started using Greenboxes before the pandemic paused using them until it was determined that COVID-19 does not spread via dishes.  Demand for Greenboxes is now higher than pre-pandemic because more students are getting their food “to go” so that they can eat in a socially distanced space.

Reducing plastic food packaging is a common concern among students, even those who are not especially eco-conscious, because their busy lifestyle inclines them toward prepared foods whose packaging is very obvious in their wastebaskets.  Reusable options have to be convenient to be popularly adopted.

Personal Reusable Items

Allegheny and Pitt give each new student a kit of reusable items such as a water bottle, travel mug, washable drinking straw (and cleaning brush), utensil set, and washable tote bag.  Owning these tools reduces the temptation to pick up common SUP items and nudges students to think about how they can fulfill everyday needs without making a lot of trash.

Important factors in encouraging adoption of reusables include reminder signs, discounts on purchases made with a reusable container, and water-bottle refill stations that are easy to use (compared to filling a bottle at a conventional drinking fountain).

Tote bags have been particularly successful at Pitt, reducing the number of disposable bags handed out by campus retailers by 95%, according to a panelist.

Sorting Trash

Seeing parallel bins for recycling, composting, and garbage reminds students to think about where things go when “thrown away.”  Although students do not always sort items correctly–causing contamination of recyclable or compostable material–persistent education and clear signage make a difference.

Waste Audits

Looking at exactly what is in the trash, and how much of it, helps a group to determine which specific items need to be replaced with something less wasteful.  Campus environmental organizations can conduct a waste audit for a dorm, an academic department, a dining facility, or the entire campus.

Divesting from Fossil Fuels

To reduce plastic pollution at the source, students are encouraging their universities to pull back investments in corporations that extract and process fossil fuels.  This is an issue of particular concern in the Pittsburgh area, as the petrochemical industry is attempting to build several large operations upstream from Pittsburgh, from which their pollution will flow down the Ohio River to the Mississippi, contaminating large portions of the United States.

Working with Larger Organizations

Students are encouraging university presidents to sign the Break Free From Plastic pledge to work toward reducing plastic consumption.  Over 900 WVU students signed a petition supporting this.

Students Taking out Oil and Petrochemicals (STOP) inspires and supports actions like these.

What Gets Students Excited?

Panelists shared several popular ideas:

  • Students enjoy supporting things that are bigger than themselves.  Values-based changes implemented campus-wide are more popular than choices people can make individually.
  • Student brainstorming can help dissolve roadblocks to change.
  • Make change by creating community.  Organizing should be fun!
  • Sustain a project by recruiting first-year students every year.  Student-run initiatives often fail when a passionate leader graduates.
  • “Be critical of systems but kind to people.”
  • Pick an area of focus to avoid getting overwhelmed by the size of the problem.
  • Take what you’ve learned from a campus project home to your community and into the wider world after graduation.