University members take steps to reduce their plastic footprint

University community members are taking unique steps to reduce waste and not use plastic.

Allison Sandve loads her plastic-free groceries into her car on Sunday, Feb. 24 at the Seward Community Co-op in Minneapolis. Sandve started living a plastic-free lifestyle almost a year ago and plans to continue exploring ways to incorporate sustainability into her life.

Elle Moulin

Allison Sandve loads her plastic-free groceries into her car on Sunday, Feb. 24 at the Seward Community Co-op in Minneapolis. Sandve started living a plastic-free lifestyle almost a year ago and plans to continue exploring ways to incorporate sustainability into her life.

Natalie Rademacher

When Allison Sandve saw what rising temperatures and pollution were doing to a coral reef in Australia, she wanted to do something about it. 

Even if it wouldn’t have a huge impact, she decided to remove plastic from her life.

“I felt like I could only do little things, but maybe I could do something,” Sandve said.

Last year, Sandve decided to stop buying products with plastic containers or packaging, like cosmetics, lotion and almost all processed foods. She makes her own deodorant and shampoo, which she keeps in used dish detergent containers in her refrigerator. The University of Minnesota Extension media and public relations manager makes her own personal hygiene products because store-bought items are often kept in plastic containers that are thrown away or recycled after use.

Sandve is nearing the end of a year-long venture to use as little plastic as she can. Her year is up in March, and she said thinks she will have saved about 20 pounds of plastic when the year is over.

“Most of this is easy … but you can navigate a fine line between passionate and obsessed when you are making your own shampoo,” she said.

Plastic can be hard to recycle and some types cannot be recycled, which is one of the reasons Sandve cut plastic from her life. 

As of 2015, only around 9 percent of plastic material is actually recycled, according to a study published in Science Advances. Around 79 percent of plastic ends up in landfills or in the environment.

Sandve has been documenting her experience through her online blog, where she writes about navigating a world full of plastic and how she finds alternatives in order to avoid it. 

Sandve is quick to note that she is not able to entirely eliminate plastic from her life. She will occasionally buy a container of orange juice or a carton of blueberries.

“You can do certain things to reduce how much plastic you use,” said Brett Barney, director of graduate studies in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering. “Just going to the grocery store and getting things you need to eat is difficult because packaging has plastic.”

After her year without plastic is over, Sandve said she will not go back to buying plastic products and plans to ramp up her efforts to reduce how much plastic she uses.

After seeing a documentary highlighting how some birds are dying from ingesting plastic, University graduate Annie Schiferl, like Sandve, decided to do something about it. 

Schiferl said it’s easy to live more sustainably in Minneapolis because of resources such as composting and recycling. She said she shops for groceries in bulk at local food cooperatives and avoids buying food and drinks that come in plastic containers.  

“I started trying to cut out things that were wasteful,” Schiferl said. “A lot of it comes down to how you buy your food.” 

Schiferl and Sandve don’t believe it is possible to live completely without plastic because of how abundant it is in society.

“Plastic is a very cheap way to package things … it helps protect freshness. There are benefits to using it,” Barney said.

For a class project, fourth-year University student Cooper Silburn carried all the waste he generated over two weeks in his backpack. At the end of the project, he had over two pounds of food packaging, plastic silverware and various plastic and waste in his bag. 

“When you buy something, there is a burden you put on the environment and those around you by the waste you produce,” Silburn said.

For Silburn, feeling the burden of the waste on his back made him realize how much waste is generated by going out to eat.

He used to frequently eat at restaurants on campus, but he now packs a lot of his own meals and is more aware of how much material he recycles and throws away, he said. 

Of the 262 million tons of waste generated nationwide in 2015, only 68 million tons were recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“There are do-nothing’s out there. In their world, future generations are going to hate us for allowing the planet to be treated so poorly,” Sandve said. “We can turn this around.”