Thinking in Systems

Down plastic, up morale: How a sustainability graduate school is reducing single-use plastic

Disposable single use plastic objects such as bottles, cups, forks, spoons and drinking straws

Last year I ran into Molly Moore, who graduated with her MBA from the Presidio Graduate School in 2014, at a conference where I spoke on a panel. She told me about SUPER, the first single-use plastic reduction tool and certification for businesses, offering Bronze, Silver and Gold tiers of certification, which she cofounded with Manuel Maqueda. I knew immediately that people at Presidio would be thrilled to use Moore's services.

The certification for service companies and office buildings encourages elimination of single-use plastics in four areas of employee activity: drinking; eating; working and gathering; or events.

"At the lower bronze level the SUPER certification requires elimination of 100 percent of plastic drinkware, 70 percent of plastic foodware, plus an 80 percent and a 35 percent elimination at events and office supplies respectively," Maqueda said, adding that the Gold certification requires total elimination in all of these areas.

Most of us at the graduate school are disgusted with plastic waste, already were reducing our use of single-use plastic and were highly motivated to learn more. Supporting one of our alumni at the same time was a bonus.

We aimed to rid our office of single-use plastic, given the toxicity of plastic supply chains and waste. We’d figured that we’d learn a lot — not only for our office but also for our homes. In October, we started work with SUPER to help us eliminate single-use plastic from our workplace. The graduate school is also working toward certification and sharing our experience of the process with other organizations who are interested in the SUPER process.

Down plastic

Maqueda and Moore conducted a one-hour workshop in our office, showing videos on the human and environmental costs of plastic waste — even in many of the world’s most remote places — and sharing best practices for reducing single-use plastic from today’s offices.

Manuel Maqueda and Molly Moore present the SUPER workshop
Presidio Graduate School
Manuel Maqueda and Molly Moore present the SUPER workshop at Presidio Graduate School’s offices Oct. 30.

"Most plastic is landfilled or incinerated or shipped to other countries," Moore said. "Only 14 percent [of] plastic is recovered globally, and a small percentage is actually recycled into something else of use."

We were shocked to learn how little of the plastic we place in the recycle bin is recycled — just 9 percent — and that plastic can be formed into new products only twice. Compare this with aluminum (PDF), with almost all cans collected for recycling effectively recycled, and with an unlimited number of new formations.

We had 90 days to demonstrate our reductions of single-use plastic. We brainstormed about no-plastic giveaways for recruitment events, ways to eliminate plastic from lunches we bring to the office, the efficacy of highlighter pencils over plastic-encased highlighter markers, how to purchase bulk supply items for the office to reduce packaging and what changes we could make at home. 

Up morale

Following the SUPER workshop, animated conversations have continued in our office and at home about the ah-ha moments and shared ideas for replacing single-use plastic with durable reusables or no materials at all. People in our office have continued to bond over this passion.

"The next few days we shared with each other how the workshop informed decisions. Halloween was the next day and we took notice — and irritation — of the single-use plastic in the trick-or-treat bags," one of my coworkers recalled.

Making the change

Our finance department measured the "before" of our office’s single-use plastic, and implemented improvements right away. Then, Maqueda and Moore returned to provide feedback on our single-use plastic reductions, making more suggestions and recommending vendors carrying plastic-free office supply items. 

SUPER’s recommendations ranged from submitting a form letter to Amazon requesting the company send less plastic packaging with Presidio Graduate School’s orders to using up the plastic pens we've already purchased, then buying Zebra metal pens when we need more.

We are implementing SUPER's recommendations as existing items run out, as Moore emphasized that it would be wasteful to toss out the single-use plastic items that were already purchased.

Before the SUPER workshop, we spent on average $1,620 annually for food and office supplies. We forecast spending 20 percent less, or $1,296 annually, post reducing and eliminating single-use plastic from our office suite. The savings stem from choosing bulk items, which tend to cost less; buying longer-lasting supplies that in some cases we won’t have to purchase again for years; and buying fewer supplies, this program revealed numerous unnecessary items that we’d been replenishing out of custom.

"We'll spend less time in ordering office supplies when the [reusable] supplies last longer and spend less on waste disposal. Our staff will have more job satisfaction — sustainability is a big reason why we work here," another one of my coworkers told me.

The ROI on morale? Priceless.