Students from CALPIRG hold up signs thanking UCLA and saying help protect our oceans

Credit: Alison Hewitt/UCLA

Students from UCLA’s CALPIRG chapter gather for an announcement about the university’s plans to phase out single-use plastics in food service.

UCLA is developing a new policy to remove environmentally harmful single-use plastics from campus food service, making it one of the largest universities nationwide to pursue phasing out one-use plastics.

Compostable Tableware
Examples of compostable alternatives to single-use plastics.
Credit: Alison Hewitt/UCLA

The draft single-use plastics policy, announced Jan. 24, aims to reduce the university’s impact on the environment and to encourage similar changes in the region. The first phase of the policy is scheduled to begin in July of this year, when UCLA plans to officially phase out plastic utensils, cup lids, bowls, plastic bags and similar “food accessory” items. Locally compostable or reusable alternatives would be provided only on request, and would shift over time to only reusable alternatives for all dine-in eaters.

The policy is envisioned as ultimately including not only sit-down and take-out restaurants at UCLA, but also dining halls, events and even departmental meetings. Everything from conferences, panel discussions and lectures to catered meetings, rallies and concerts would be covered. The draft policy envisions a path to ultimately eliminate single-use plastic water bottles on campus and increase water-refilling hydration stations.

CALPIRG students together supporting their cause with a turtle mascot
Student members of CALPIRG chapter meet at the announcement of UCLA’s plans to phase out single-use plastics in food service.
Credit: Alison Hewitt/UCLA

“UCLA is part of the larger culture shift moving away from wishful recycling,” said Nurit Katz, the university’s chief sustainability officer. “Only a small percentage of plastic is successfully recycled despite decades of efforts nationwide and globally. By getting rid of single-use plastics, we will make the planet a little healthier, and help Bruins approach their goal of zero waste.”

The policy is expected to be ready for a 30-day public review by mid-March, and it is targeted to go into effect July 1.

UCLA sustainability staff began collaborating with colleagues from across the University of California in spring 2019 to develop a UC-wide policy up for approval on Jan. 31. However, UCLA’s plan includes earlier deadlines and more aggressive targets, said Michael Beck, UCLA’s administrative vice chancellor. The campus has already eliminated plastic foam and many single-use plastics in food service, and has shifted almost entirely to locally compostable flatware and to-go food service items.

“Our dates are more aggressive than the UC policy because I think we can and should implement this sooner, as the damage done by single-use plastics to our local and global environment is so severe,” Beck said. The enthusiasm and commitment of UCLA students to environmental causes help buoy the university’s progress, he added. “We have already eliminated several kinds of single-use plastics on campus, and students helped stimulate us to convert practice into policy.”

The UCLA chapter of the California Student Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG Students) was especially active, collecting about 1,900 student signatures supporting the move away from single-use plastics. The group also made classroom announcements to about 10,000 students to help raise awareness about the need for change, said Sithara Menon, chair of the CALPIRG Students UCLA chapter. Over the last two decades, Menon has noticed a dramatic increase in the amount of plastic littering Southern California beaches.

“Nothing we use for a few minutes should pollute our oceans and environment for hundreds of years,” said the UCLA junior. “As a biology major, I’ve studied how critical a healthy ocean is for our ecosystem and climate. I’m excited that now in my classes students will also learn how UCLA is taking action to reduce our plastic addiction.”

The change won’t be easy, but UCLA sustainability staff say the campus is ready. They added hundreds of compost bins on campus, including in washrooms for paper towel waste. Conversations are already changing vendor habits, such as among those who once supplied individually plastic-wrapped tablecloths for special events but who now use reusable bags for linens. Likewise, years of campus “trash talks,” waste audits and awareness campaigns have prepared many Bruins, and the proposed policy change will include more outreach, said Kikei Wong, UCLA zero waste coordinator.

“It will be challenging,” Wong acknowledged. “There are so many single-use plastics everywhere in our lives that we depend on for convenience, but for the planet, this is the next step that we have to take.”

UCLA isn’t the first university to take this step, but it will likely inspire others, said Bonny Bentzin, deputy chief sustainability officer.

“UCLA is a leader with the ability to drive new policies and influence the purchasing practices across the region,” Bentzin said. “Vendors won’t change just part of their business. They’ll change their whole inventory and start to shift others over with us.”

Erin Fabris, sustainability manager for UCLA Housing and Hospitality, helped develop both the UC and UCLA draft policies.

“UCLA has a huge footprint,” Fabris said. “Expand that to all nine other campuses, and that’s a pretty significant change we can make in California.”