July 19, 2021

Would you like plastic with that?

UCalgary researcher focuses on reducing usage of single-use plastics across campus
Kruti Mukesh
Kruti Mukesh, research assistant at Haskayne School of Business

Do you know what your morning coffee comes with a side of? Plastic. From the cup a Tim’s iced coffee comes in, to the food at lunch — all served with a side of plastic cutlery.

Plastic has become so ubiquitous that often people don’t recognize when it is being used. These types of plastics often cause widespread pollution at their end-of-life stages. This comes at a significant cost to society which has induced a multinational effort to find plastic alternatives.

At first glance, it might seem like reducing the use of disposable plastic cutlery and bottles at the University of Calgary may not make a big difference, but multiply that across the campus, and it does; almost 50 per cent of UCalgary’s current waste goes to the landfill, and much of that waste is single-use plastic.

Goal for 2030

UCalgary is currently developing a plan that aims to see 90 per cent of its waste diverted from landfills by 2030 through reducing the total amount of waste produced and increasing composting and recycling rates on campus. The goal is to meet (and exceed) the federal government’s plastic-reduction targets through waste-minimization and diversion. Advancing a culture of responsible consumption on campus is critical for meeting this target.

“UCalgary aims to be a Canadian post-secondary leader in waste-diversion practices; however, to achieve UCalgary’s approach to becoming zero waste, buy-in from the entire campus community is required,” says Michael Love, UCalgary’s director of caretaking.

If we all work together, we can create a culture shift towards more responsible consumption habits at UCalgary and beyond.

This Plastic Free July, a worldwide initiative to draw attention to the issue, we highlight a research project that will inform UCalgary’s approach towards reducing plastic waste on campus.

Kruti Mukesh, MSc(SEDV)’20, says she became passionate about reducing plastic pollution after hearing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s June 2019 announcement on Canada banning single-use plastics. "Every time I walk around campus, I see forks and spoons littering the place, all of which ultimately increase our environmental footprint," she says. "And then I heard about how plastics are infesting our oceans and I decided to try and do something about it."

Study aims to reduce campus waste

With the support of Dr. Irene Herremans, PhD, of the Haskayne School of Business, Mukesh is now is leading a research project, partnering with campus stakeholders to identify ways to reduce single-use plastics on campus, such as by, for example, encouraging students and faculty to bring their own reusable cutlery and drinking mugs or bottles.

Stakeholders include Facilities Management, UCalgary’s Office of Sustainability and a Haskayne faculty member in the Sustainable Energy Development program. Through her research, Mukesh has learned that “stakeholders would like single-use plastics to be replaced by Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI)-certified compostable products.”

The focus is currently on food vendors at MacEwan Student Centre and elsewhere across campus, says Mukesh, who began the project as a volunteer and was later hired as a research assistant by Herremans. This project incorporates various methodologies for learning, which has provided Mukesh with the opportunity to engage in experiential learning for sustainability through the Campus as a Learning Lab program. Mukesh says that “bringing together stakeholders for this project, allowed me to develop my project management and stakeholder engagement skills.”

“At UCalgary, food vendors and customers in the MacEwan Student Centre are large consumers of single-use plastic,” says Mukesh. These vendors are primarily managed by Aramark, the Students’ Union or Ancillary Services. UCalgary also has one beverage supplier — Coca-Cola.

Search for alternatives

Conversations with vendor managers are focusing on potential alternatives to plastic bottles such as aluminum cans and ways to reduce the economic impact for both the university and its vendors. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many food businesses have been experiencing financial hardships, which creates a challenge in adopting alternatives to plastic since they are often more expensive.

Mukesh says she is “committed to finding solutions that are feasible, inexpensive and sustainable,” adding that “working to establish realistic deadlines to provide considerable time for businesses to adjust is also a priority.” Further, by engaging the campus on this issue right now, she hopes to help ease the transition away from the heavy usage of disposable plastics.

She predicts that upcoming government policies will impact the food vendors on campus even more, further limiting the use of plastic cutlery, plates, stir sticks, bags, beverage carriers and straws. And, to achieve compliance with the upcoming regulation, UCalgary must transition.

In 2020, in partnership with Environment and Climate Change Canada, the federal government announced a mandate to eliminate six single-use plastic products and adopt a target of 50-per cent recycled plastic items by 2030. Companies manufacturing, importing or selling single-use plastics will have increased accountability to the government and are responsible for appropriately managing the end of life of their products. As a leading institution in sustainability, UCalgary aims to go beyond just the items outlined in the federal mandate and believes more items can be eliminated and reduced.

The initiatives highlighted within this article connect to SDGs 11, 12, 14, 15 and 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.  

The University of Calgary’s Institutional Sustainability Strategy provides a road map for continuous improvement in our pursuit of excellence and leadership in sustainability. We aim to be a Canadian post-secondary education leader in sustainability in our academic and engagement programs, administrative and operational practices, and through supporting community and industry in their aims for leadership in sustainability. Learn more about UCalgary’s leadership in sustainability

Kruti Mukesh graduated in 2020 with her Master of Science in Sustainable Energy Development at UCalgary and is currently working as a research assistant. She is at the forefront of developing and strategizing policy for reduction and elimination of single-use plastic items, thereby contributing towards the university’s zero-waste campus vision.