By Ina Schebler
— When Greenpeace issued its Plastic Bag Challenge, calling for people to not buy plastic bags for seven weeks, AUC students were quick to signal their participation by clicking “attending” on the Facebook page. However, only a few have officially signed up and even fewer are aware of the exact rules of the challenge. Although AUC students sometimes critique their classmates for being armchair activists, this lack of follow-through may be due to the students being already environmentally aware.
The countrywide Plastic Tasjes Challenge (Plastic Bag Challenge) started on March 25th and will last until May 15th. The rules are simple: do not get new plastic bags, neither the small ones for loose vegetables nor the big ones at the counters. Plastic-packaged products and garbage bags are grey areas and Greenpeace recommends coming up with alternatives.
Almost 11,500 people clicked “attending” on the Facebook event page, including around 20 AUC students. It turns out, however, that most of them did not take the step to sign up for the official challenge and some who did sign up did not read the rules. Nevertheless, all said they try to never get new plastic bags anyway.
Eva de Groot, a second year student, clicked “attending” on the Facebook event page, because she wanted to give herself an extra push. Although she usually always brings her own bag when doing groceries and reuses it, de Groot is a bit more conscious now. Josua Münch, also a second year, takes the same approach. Before, he still rarely gave in to the convenience a new plastic bag provides when buying loose veggies like beans or mushrooms, for instance. “Now that I signed up for a program it helps me to be more consequent,” he says and explains that he has not gotten any new plastic bags since.
Robbert Muller, first year student, says there was no need for him to participate. “I wanted my friends to know about this challenge, so they would hopefully join as well,” he says. At least seven of his friends outside AUC followed his lead. Muller particularly targeted his non-AUC friends because he thinks that AUC students as a whole are already quite aware of sustainability issues. “Some are aware, but don’t care,” he says, “but they are at least aware.”
Maarten de Zeeuw is on the board of ASUSA, the sustainability committee at AUC. Raising awareness is one of ASUSA’s main goals and de Zeeuw sees parallels in the shortcomings of both ASUSA’s and Greenpeace’s initiatives: mainly people who are already environmentally aware sign up. Nevertheless, he finds it important to bring like-minded people together and facilitate discussions. Also, the plastic bag challenge guidelines encourage people to share their experiences on Facebook and help others to find solutions.
Münch says he is now more vehement in refusing the plastic bags that the vendors in the Moroccan shop are so fast to put the groceries in. But there is more to a sustainable student than plastic bags. “I cycle, I separate my waste, I switch off my gadgets and lights if I am not in my room, I keep the heating very low,” he says. De Groot is a vegetarian, Muller tries to not throw food away and ASUSA organizes the vegetarian Down To Earth Dinners as well as workshops to sew grocery bags. “But how do you measure environmental friendliness?” asks Münch. He thinks that AUC students are good at eating organic or vegetarian food and separating waste, while flying a lot is a big minus.
“In general, there are quite some things well arranged at AUC as an institution,” says de Zeeuw. The building is very sustainable in terms of heating and light, one tries to avoid paper, there are bottle refill stations with tap water in the building and there are engaged students who approach ASUSA about the recycling problem. Although there are separate bins in the academic building, they are being disposed of in the same container behind the building. It is a complicated matter, encompassing staff’s limited time, issues like students throwing the assumed paper cups into the paper bin, while they actually contain some plastic, and the UVA’s responsibility for what happens with AUC’s trash.
De Zeeuw stresses that the management and staff are very cooperative in this matter. However, although they are willing to help and improve the situation, it is somehow low on the priority list. “It is easy to say that something has to change,” says de Zeeuw, “but to actually change it, requires a lot of effort.” That is the Plastic Bag Challenge’s big plus: it is easy to do. De Groot says she likes the hands-on approach of the challenge, because although it might just be a small change, it is something concrete.