While ECO club aims to improve the environmental sustainability of the OIST campus in many ways, our first major goal is to eliminate single-use plastics associated with dining, especially plastic bags. Bento boxes, themselves disposable single-use plastics, almost unanimously come wrapped in a plastic bag (also accompanied by an individually plastic-wrapped napkin..). OISTers carry these bags either 10 steps to the outdoor tables, 20 steps to the indoor tables, or, on average, 150 meters to a lunch room in one of the labs. After eating, all the bento waste, including the plastic bag, is deposited into the “burnable waste” container - none of this garbage is recycled. The ECO club recognized that serving in bentos in plastic bags is extremely wasteful and totally unnecessary. OISTers that eat in the indoor or outdoor dining spaces near Gramo do not need a bag at all. A bag is probably not necessary for the slightly longer walk to the lab buildings, but those that disagree could use a reusable tote bag or cloth bento wrap. It became abundantly clear that ECO club’s first mission must be to raise awareness about how many plastic bags enter the waste stream from OIST and the negative impacts these plastic bags have on the environment.
We knew we needed to do something big and visual. We decided to collect all the plastic bags discarded at OIST for one week and then construct a large public exhibit from them, alongside informative posters about plastic waste. To collect the bags, we put out bins in Grano and in all of the lunch rooms around campus with instructions posted to separate plastics bags from the rest of the burnable trash. ECO club members volunteered to stand by the bins in Grano during lunchtime to ensure proper sorting, but also to talk to people and explain what we were doing and why. After lunch, we spread out across campus and collected the bags from the bins in the lunchrooms. Without minders watching these bins, most people just put all their trash in the burnable bin, so ECO clubbers had to get their hands dirty and do a considerable amount of garbage sorting. Even with this extra effort, we still were not able to collect all of the bags from the lab buildings. The OIST custodians are fast, and they empty the burnable bins immediately following lunch. If they beat us to the garbage stations, all the unsorted bags were already carted away. Even with these losses, we collected 1,026 plastic bags in only 5 days.
We decided the OIST tunnel gallery would be the optimal location to display all the bags we collected since most OIST students, postdocs, technicians, and administrators walk this tunnel every morning and every evening (even though faculty and executives skip it). We thought that having the plastic bags stretch the entire length of the tunnel gallery would really showcase the magnitude of waste we are producing. The timing of our project ended up being perfect. We collected the bags a couple weeks before OIST’s huge annual community outreach event, “Open Campus/Science Festival.” If we finished our project before this event, over 5,000 locals would line up along the project while they waited to use the elevators and enter the festival. Our exposure would be magnified 5x and we would hopefully convince locals to say no to plastic bags in addition to OISTers.
It was a push to finish washing the bags (those that had to be fished out of the garbage were often covered in food) and tying them together before the festival, but with the help of many volunteers, it got done. Club members researched plastic waste and created beautiful infographic posters, and our Japanese speaking club members graciously translated every poster into Japanese so that everyone entering or leaving the university could read and appreciate our message. The day before the science festival, we spent about 8 hours hanging the plastic bags on the glass wall of the tunnel gallery. In the end, we could not fit all the bags we collected into the space we were allowed, but it still looked impressive. Perhaps the best part was the conversations that were sparked when people observed us working on the installation. Many people asked what we were doing as they traversed the tunnel and we happily explained the project and and our mission. To our surprise, more than a few people took a moment out of their commute to help us hang bags and posters!
The ECO club plastic bag installation graced the walls of the OIST tunnel gallery for almost two weeks. Did every OISTer swear off plastic bags after seeing this dramatic display of plastic wasted at our university? No. Many people even said that it wasn’t not that much waste, that plastic bags don’t really matter. But many people learned something new about plastic waste and many more hopefully feel at least a little more resolved to make an effort to bring their own bags or say no to plastic bags from the bento vendors. Probably most importantly, the manager of Grano noticed that many of the bags in the tunnel were Grano’s, and expressed interest to reduce Grano’s plastic waste. We have a lot more work to do, but this exhibit was a good first step in the long journey towards making OIST a plastic-free campus.