Plastic free UT1

KNOXVILLE, TN - Plastic Free UT co-founder Rachel Stewart blouses the UT Torchbearer with plastic containers in protest of single use plastics on campus for International Day of Climate Action. Monday, Oct. 24, 2022. 

On Sunday night, the student organization Plastic Free UT hosted an art night where they made posters to prepare for their protest at the Coca-Cola bottling site in Knoxville. The protest is set to happen on Tuesday, Nov. 15, which is recognized as National Recycling Day.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Recycling Day, or “America Recycles Day,” is a dedicated day to spread the message of the importance of recycling — an action to contribute to national environmental protection as well as American prosperity in general.

Plastic Free UT member Kelly Su wrote “SAVE THE EARTH” on a poster board as she discussed the organization’s goals for Tuesday.

“We’re going to be in front of the Coca-Cola bottling site. We’re going to do some chants and show just how much plastic waste is on campus,” Su said.

At Tuesday’s protest, students will carry a single day’s worth of Coca-Cola plastic products collected on campus by the volunteering group Smokey’s Clean Up Crew. The organization aims to show the environmental impact caused by Coca-Cola’s products being used on UT’s campus.

Ryan Beatty, an executive member of Students for Migrant Justice, shared her hopes for action after Tuesday’s display.

“I think the result of this action could just be letting Coca-Cola and UT know that students are watching. I think that for a university that is supposed to be doing work for its students is not doing a great job at listening to its students … it is important to know that students have power here too,” Beatty said. “We’re the reason this university exists, and I think the university really needs to remember that.”

On Oct. 24, Plastic Free UT held a protest in front of Rocky Top’s iconic torchbearer statue and demonstrated their grievances with the mass amount of single-use plastics at UT. Since then, they have received no response.

Su wants Tuesday’s protest to draw eyes to their purpose and force accountability at UT.

“We want to meet with the administration and the contractors on campus. There’s no direct line of communication between the people who decide contracts, and that’s not good,” Su said. “Coca-Cola has a contract with UT, and students don’t have a say in that at all. Being able to communicate our desires with the people who make those decisions would be huge.”

UT’s contract with Coca-Cola will end in 2027 following its ten-year deal.

“If by then Coca-Cola is unable to find plastic free alternatives, being able to sign contracts with a source that could provide that for the university is something we want,” Su said.

According to the Coca-Cola website, the company’s “World Without Waste'' vision aims to help collect and recycle bottles for each one they sell by 2030. The company has also reported working on a plant-based bottle prototype, which excludes the cap and the label.

The vision also includes making 100% of packaging recyclable by 2025, using 50% recycled material in packaging by 2030 and having at least 25% of their beverages sold in refillable/returnable packaging by 2030.

However, plastic in its current make up is unable to break down and is unusable after three rounds of recycled uses. Plastic Free UT hopes to convince UT to opt for a circular reusable system or compostable options.

For Beatty, the current state of affairs on campus is a concern.

“We are in an age where we are seeing more and more microplastics everywhere. It’s in people’s food and in their bodies. That’s massively concerning, and it’s not going to get much better if companies like Coca-Cola continue to produce as much waste as they do,” Beatty said

“(Plastic) is polluting our Earth. It’s polluting our ecosystems, our waterways. It’s not healthy for people or animals, and it’s aiding in global climate change. We want to help stop that,” Su said.

On National Day of Recycling, students want to call on UT to acknowledge the waste they are producing and cause Coca-Cola to face what they are creating.

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