On Monday, Oct. 24, the student organization Plastic Free UT hosted an event entitled “Free the Torch” promoting environmental action at the torchbearer statue. Students hung a garland of plastic waste on the University of Tennessee's iconic statue as a demand for change at UT on the International Day of Climate Action.
Julia Craven and Rachel Stewart, co-founders of Plastic Free UT, spoke about the necessity of pollution awareness and their request that UT listen to their propositions and take a stand to make a change.
Stewart explains the organization’s reason for choosing to do a public display.
“We have been working tirelessly since July trying to get UT to move away from single-use plastic purchasing. We’ve introduced SGA legislation, we have a circulating survey that’s gotten over 2,000 responses, we have a petition that has about 500 signatures, we’ve met with Chancellor Plowman, we’ve hosted events and we haven’t seen any action — just words of support.”
The members of Plastic Free UT are tired of the platitudes and want change.
“We don’t have time to wait. It’s a fact that climate change is threatening our Earth and front line communities,” Stewart said.
The organization’s demands begin with UT signing the Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) pledge, a commitment to guide campuses towards long-term elimination of single-use plastics. Among the universities that have signed the BFFP Pledge are all University of California systems, Eckerd College, Emory University, Marshall University and six others. UT would be the first SEC school to embark on such an endeavor.
The two co-founders explained that this played a factor in choosing the torchbearer for their display. Stewart read the Volunteer Creed on the stone beneath the statue, explaining its importance in these circumstances.
“One that beareth a torch shadoweth oneself to give light to others … As Volunteers, we should be leading the way,” Stewart said.
Craven described the feasibility of change.
“There was a successful movement that got styrofoam taken out of the dining halls in 2020 via petition,” Craven said.
These efforts were made by Students Providing Environmental Action in Knoxville (SPEAK) to provide a sustainable dining experience when dine-in options were disallowed due to COVID-19 protocols.
In years past, there was also progress made in combating food waste through Smokey’s Pantry and the Food For Vols programs.
“We still have single-use plastics everywhere. We want to change that. The amount of pollution in our community is abhorrent. We’re right next to the Tennessee river which is the most polluted river by microplastics in the world,” Stewart said.
In 2020, a study by Professor Andreas Fath revealed that there were close to 18,000 microplastic particles per cubic meter of water in the Tennessee River.
“That level of pollution is simply not safe,” Stewart said.
Plastic is unable to break down. It becomes unusable after three recycled uses. Plastic Free UT maintains that their end goal is to stop the production of single-use plastics at UT and opt for a reusable circular system or compostable options.
Craven explained what they hope will come from the display.
“When people see this we want them to be curious and realize that this is a central issue for students. We have tons of evidence of that, but we want to show people that we are demanding and wanting change,” Craven said.
Plastic Free UT sees themselves as a starting place to hold the university accountable for its environmental impact. They describe their proposals as “the tip of the very large plastic iceberg.”
“It will be a process. We know that we can’t stop all plastic use today, that’s not realistic, but the university can take more action than they have been, and they can meet with us,” Stewart said.
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