The University of British Columbia (UBC) is ditching single-use coffee cups and plastic food ware and encouraging students, faculty, and staff to choose reusable options such as their own mugs, water bottles, and cutlery.
Starting in January, all food and beverage retailers on campus will be required to charge customers a separate fee for single-use items—initially coffee cups—to encourage the transition to reusable food ware. To avoid paying the fee, consumers can bring their own travel mug or choose to enjoy their drink in the store using a reusable mug.
Retailers — not UBC — will determine the single-use cup fee, which must be at least 25 cents, and will collect the fees. Retailers will determine how to use the fees, which may include applying them to offset the extra cost associated with transitioning to different products.
Retailers will also move toward offering smarter, more sustainable materials for single-use items, such as wooden cutlery, that will be available upon request, and they will discontinue certain items, such as foam cups and plastic bags. Improved in-store recycling bins and signage are also part of the strategy.
The move is part of UBC’s Zero Waste Food Ware Strategy — adopted in June 2019 — aimed at keeping as many single-use coffee cups, plastic straws, bags, and cutlery out of landfills and the environment as possible. Straws will still be available upon request for accessibility purposes.
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“Single-use plastic is a global problem that every community is tackling differently,” said Bud Fraser, planning and sustainability engineer at UBC. “As a long-standing leader in global sustainability, UBC has an opportunity to lead the region in reducing single-use items and to make an impact far beyond our community.”
This latest move, he furthered, “is an important step toward a zero waste future for food and beverage on campus.”
In 2017, 1.7 million single-use coffee cups, 2.3 million pieces of plastic cutlery, and 690,000 plastic bags were given out on the UBC Vancouver campus alone.
Many single-use items are often not disposed of in the correct recycling or composting bins because they are challenging to sort, which creates problems at composting facilities and degrades the quality and value of materials for recycling.
“Our largest food retailer, UBC Food Services, has already successfully implemented some of these changes, and the new strategy offers a unique opportunity to further reduce waste by extending these successful requirements to the wide range of retailers across campus,” said Victoria Wakefield, purchasing manager at UBC Student Housing and Hospitality Services.
The university’s strategy was partly informed by a research study commissioned in 2018 by UBC SEEDs and Campus and Community Planning. The study examined the potential to recycle various types of plastic and their environmental risk in ocean ecosystems.
The study, led by then-graduate students Kaleigh Davis and Fiona Beaty, traced the journey plastics make when they leave UBC, from recyclers in the Lower Mainland to manufacturers across the ocean. The findings emphasized the need for UBC to prioritize reducing single-use items, and provided practical recommendations for switching from high-impact to low-impact plastics for items that cannot be eliminated.
“The high numbers of single-use items distributed across campus each day have far-reaching negative consequences for our local marine environment,” said Davis. “Out of all the plastic food ware items, cutlery poses the most severe ingestion risk for seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals, while the plastic lining and lids from disposable coffee cups accumulate huge amounts of water-borne pollutants that may be toxic for the animals that ingest them.”
UBC said its staff are working to support affected retailers as they move toward implementation, including offering a zero waste assessment of current food ware products and recycling set-ups with accompanying recommendations, and providing signage.