New University of Minnesota campaign aims to curb campus plastic waste

Using an app called Cupanion, students can accrue points by filling reusable water bottles.

A student scans a special sticker using the Cupanion app to earn points for refilling a reusable water bottle during Welcome Week on St. Paul Campus on Friday, Sept. 2.

Meagan Lynch

A student scans a special sticker using the “Cupanion” app to earn points for refilling a reusable water bottle during Welcome Week on St. Paul Campus on Friday, Sept. 2.

by Rilyn Eischens

Students can earn rewards just for filling reusable water bottles on campus through a new program at the University of Minnesota.

The campaign, Choose ReUse & Win, uses an app called Cupanion in hopes of cutting plastic waste on campus by giving students points and prizes for refilling their bottles. With some students showing excitement for the campaign, its founders think it will be a success, while other students doubt it will accomplish its goal.

Incoming freshmen and transfer students received barcode stickers during Welcome Week to attach to their bottles, said University Director of Sustainability Shane Stennes.

Users then download the free Cupanion app, scan the sticker barcode when they refill their bottles on campus and earn points per scan, he said.

The points can be redeemed for discounts or free items at dining halls and campus convenience stores, Stennes said, adding that there will also raffles for other prizes.

Other students, he said, can participate if they buy the $1 sticker from Student Unions and Activities or at pop-up locations this semester.

After a Minnesota Student Association member heard about Cupanion — which is used at several other universities — at a conference last fall, MSA partnered with the Office of Sustainability and the Sustainable 

Systems Management  Club to bring the app to campus, said MSA Sustainability Committee Director Sasha Karleusa.

The campaign aims to curb student use of disposable bottles, said Karleusa, a sophomore architecture major.

“We want to not only protect the health of our environment, but it also immediately affects our health as humans that live on the earth,” she said.

“The benefits extend beyond sustainability,” Karleusa said.

“It saves the University money and it saves students money as well,” she said.

Stennes said those working on the program believe it will reduce the number of disposable bottles, cups and lids thrown away on campus.

“It’s beyond the plastic bottle waste and reaching into lots of different areas,” he said. “We are expecting that it’s going to have a significant impact in the course of this semester.”

First-year chemical engineering major Logan Karls said he thinks the point system will be popular.

“The app is a great way to give students incentive to keep refilling,” he said. “They’re definitely very convenient. They have many [scanning] locations in my res hall that I already know of.”

Although Andrew Broeckel, a first-year engineering student likes the idea, he said it may not change students’ behavior. He said participation will drop because students will lose interest or forget about the initiative. 

“It’s a good thing to encourage the use of reusable water bottles, but we’ll see how long I remember,” he said.

Choosing reusable bottles in place of disposable plastic ones may be healthier for the environment as well as for people, said Paul Bolstad, a professor in the University’s Department of Forest Resources. 

Encouraging people to use plastic, glass or metal water bottles makes sense for universities and municipalities because it cuts down on litter and its associated costs, Bolstad said.

Reusable bottles also reduce waste in landfills, which is especially important with materials such as plastic that don’t break down quickly, he said.

Americans throw away 25 billion disposable cups a year, according the program’s website.

“[Plastic] sort of breaks apart and lasts in the environment for hundreds of thousands of years,” Bolstad said. “Pieces of plastic are going to be around for your great-great-grandkids.”

Disposable plastic bottles also release unhealthy chemicals, he said. Some reusable bottles also have these chemicals, but in much smaller amounts.

While some chemicals, like bisphenol A, or BPA, have been studied extensively, most have not, and potential health risks aren’t fully understood, Bolstad said. These substances may be harmful to children and fetuses, he said.

To minimize risks it’s best to not heat up plastic bottles or use them for hot liquids, he said. The safest options are glass or unlined stainless steel bottles, Bolstad said.