Emory University President Gregory L. Fenves signed the “Break Free from Plastic” pledge on June 15 after meeting with student leaders of the Plastic Free Emory Project (PFEP). The pledge asks the University to substantially reduce the presence of single-use plastics on the Atlanta and Oxford campuses in a 5-year span.

The Emory pledge is part of a nationwide effort created by the Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN) in 2018 to reduce plastic waste on college campuses. So far, 17 other campuses have signed this pledge, including the University of California system. Emory is the first higher education institution in Georgia to pledge to extensively reduce its plastic consumption.

The Break Free from Plastic pledge requires the University to reduce the presence of single-use plastics on its Atlanta and Oxford campuses by 2026. (Creative Commons)

Students CJ O’Brien (21G), who was a Field Intern for Oceana, and Nithya Narayanaswamy (21Ox, 23C) founded PFEP in fall of 2020 to phase out “unnecessary” single-use plastics on Emory’s campuses. O’Brien said that the pledge’s success is proof of the power of student-led activism and makes her feel hopeful about the possibility of continuing to reduce single-use plastics.

“Throughout the creation of our campaign, we wanted to bridge the gap between individual actions and institutional change,” O’Brien said. “Most solutions that tackle plastic only focus on consumers or the students, but this campaign was different. We wanted to ensure that we are cultivating a culture where the institution and the individuals in the Emory community are both doing their part to reduce unnecessary single-use plastic.”

Following over 50 meetings with individuals at Emory since beginning the “Break Free from Plastic” mission, Narayanaswamy said it feels “surreal” that Fenves signed the pledge. 

“This pledge marks a step towards taking collective action for our future,” Narayanaswamy said. “Emory University is a stakeholder in the social and environmental wellbeing of its students, community and the larger Atlanta area, and this pledge marks a moment of unity to fight environmental injustice, social inequity and so much more.”

O’Brien originally asked Fenves to sign the pledge in December 2019 two days before the City of Atlanta’s implementation of Plastic Ordinance 19-O-1418. This ordinance banned all non-compostable single-use serviceware, including plastic bags, plastic straws and Styrofoam at city-owned buildings. The ordinance also prohibits the city and its contractors from purchasing non-compostable single-use serviceware and making it available to the public. 

The pledge called on the University to “invest in education, resources and infrastructure to reduce single-use plastics on the individual and institutional levels” and bolster efforts to eliminate plastic bags, plastic straws and Styrofoam in accordance with Atlanta’s ordinance. 

Single-use plastics include plastic cutlery, plastic straws and non-reusable plastic water bottles as each product has an intended lifespan of one use. The Plastic Free Emory Project deems single-use plastics unnecessary if there are “readily available alternatives” to the plastic product.  

President of the Emory Climate Analysis and Solutions Team Jack Miklaucic (23C) said that he was “delighted” that Emory made the pledge.

It is encouraging to see student leaders creating positive change regarding Emory’s environmental impact,” Miklaucic said.

Prior to Fenves’ signature, the pledge was passed in February by the Student Government Association (SGA), the Oxford SGA, the Graduate Student Government Association, the BBA Council and the University Senate.

The pledge details that by 2026, the University will create a Plastic Free Task Force to help enact the pledge, establish a year-by-year strategy to reduce single-use plastics and “implement purchasing guidelines” to eliminate future acquisition of unnecessary single-use plastics. The initiative has begun the recruiting process for this task force, and students from all majors and backgrounds are encouraged to apply.