For college unions, driving meaningful, community-building action on campus often requires attention-grabbing advertising.
And on university grounds, there’s no better way to compete for eyeballs than to suspend a colorful vinyl banner within the student body’s field of vision. It also doesn’t hurt that today’s banners are easy to order online and come with various options, including extra-thick outdoor vinyl, reinforced edges, and grommets.
But while these durable, easily-produced materials are practical community-building tools, they pose a dilemma in terms of social and environmental responsibility — another crucial pillar in the role of the college union. The problem: Most banners are made of a flexible form of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), a synthetic plastic polymer.
The EPA regulates PVC manufacturing under the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) to limit the effects of such chemicals on environmental and human health. However, there are no regulations on the material’s afterlife — and PVC is a notorious offender in terms of safe waste management.
The SFGate reports that both the disposal and recycling of PVC is hazardous “due to the material’s inherent chlorine content, as well as the range of chemical additives used.”
Rightly concerned about keeping such hard-to-recycle materials out of landfills, some student unions are exploring ways to reuse PVC and other nonbiodegradable materials. In recognition of Campus Sustainability Month this October, ACUI members shared steps toward better waste reduction practices.
Get Started with Upcycling
Gregory Wilkins, Associate Director of Centennial Student Union & Student Activities at Minnesota State University–Mankato, recommends reaching out to your school’s art department and sustainability committee to see whether they can use the materials in an upcycling capacity.
Wilkins said he’s worked with communities across the globe on such projects.
“As a professional artist and lover of craft, I work within communities and find opportunities to give back,” he said. “One of those ways is via taking ‘trash’ and turning it into treasure — for example, scavenging mega dumpsites for plastic bottles and using the caps for wall murals, removing aluminum pop tags and turning them into jewelry, and taking large fish feed sacks and turning them into hats, rain gear, backpacks, and duffel bags.”
Wilkins suggests a similar treatment for other materials commonly used by student unions. Try giving plastic-based polyester tablecloths, for example, a second chance as fabric for theater costumes, drop cloths for university painting projects, or use in textile programs. (Pinterest is a rich source for upcycling patterns and inspiration.)
ACUI member Andrea Trevino, Student Housing & Residential Life at the University of Houston, said she’s participated in similar upcycling projects within her school’s student center over the years.
“We have a creation station within our department where we’ve held DIY workshops to create items like handbags, messenger bags, and little cash holders out of used banners,” Trevino said. “I still have one of the bags that we created, and three years later, it’s holding up nicely.”
Tackle Sustainability the Open-Source Way
Though PVC’s longevity is a benefit in terms of the bags she created, Trevino said it ultimately poses significant environmental problems. “It’s really durable material — which is a concern when you consider how long it would take to decompose,” she said.
Certain campus activities and events create peak seasons for single-use plastic. During student government elections, for instance, Trevino said plastic-based signage and other marketing assets sprout up across campus like invasive species.
That’s where solutions like Precious Plastic UH come in handy. The student club, registered under the University of Houston’s Industrial Design program within the College of Architecture and Design, works to breathe new life into used plastic.
The group, open to all majors, is part of the larger open-source hardware plastic recycling system known as Precious Plastic. All information and code surrounding the project are free under a Creative Commons license and available to any school, organization, or individual.
Precious Plastic designs semi-industrial shredding machines in the Netherlands specifically to process large volumes of plastic. Groups such as UH’s Industrial Design program then take those blueprints and build their own shredders independently.
“The shredder allows students to take certain types of plastics and upcycle them into something new, whether it’s a bowl or a piece of art,” Trevino said of the machine built by UH’s Industrial Design program. “The club is working to place receptacles in certain areas to collect specifically-numbered plastics for use in the shredder. It’s a small but growing effort.”
Flex Your Purchasing Muscle
According to Great Britain’s Royal Statistical Society, only 9 percent of all plastic ever created has been recycled. Facts like these underscore the importance of making wise consumption choices well ahead of the waste management stage.
“It’s not just as simple as reducing, reusing, or recycling — it’s really about understanding the educational, civic, and social justice aspects of sustainability,” Trevino said.
The University of Houston aims to achieve the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), a series of interconnected opportunities for positive social and environmental change. Goal 12, for example, focuses on responsible consumption and production with a focus on minimizing adverse impacts on human health and the environment.
“You have to consider the lifecycle of a product and what happens once it goes into a landfill,” Trevino said. “How does contamination in that area’s water and soil affect agriculture; how does it affect the individuals who are living next to a landfill?”
As the UN Global Compact’s guidelines for corporate and organizational responsibility state, “Supply chain sustainability and responsible procurement are critical to making global goals local business by ensuring that the extension of a company’s operations, products and services can support the realities of our planet and better serve markets both today and in the future.”
To that end, Trevino said that student unions can work to make sustainable procurement a priority.
“It’s about knowing how to use our purchasing power, within limitations of our university’s procurement processes, of course, and trying to direct our funding toward companies that are sustainable,” she said. “Our purchasing power goes a long way – and it’s a testament to where we can be in a couple of years if we educate people a little bit more on how our decisions affect others’ lives.”
Wilkins shared a similar sentiment.
“Living in a throwaway society is hurting the planet,” he said. “The decisions we make today will outlive our life and affect generations…I hope others will find new ways to rethink their personal consumption and move from ordinary to extraordinary.”