Mountain Mama’s Sustainable Climb

March 30, 2021


Austin O'Connor

Man steps on top of mountain at Seneca Rocks, West Virginia. | Photo courtesy of Austin O’Connor (@Oco_photo)

Marshall University, located in Huntington, W.Va., have made notable sustainable decisions in the past two years — regarding plastic consumption and recycling in the Mountain State. As the third most forested state surrounded by the Appalachian Mountain region, these improvements have also highlighted the dangerous lack of resources in the state.

On January 25th of 2021, Marshall announced that the university’s president Jerome Gilbert signed the ‘Break Free from Plastic Campus Pledge,’ making Marshall the first university in the Appalachian region to sign.

The pledge, created by the Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN), works to guide campuses towards a long-term elimination of single-use disposable plastics and work towards waste elimination.

Examples of single-use disposable plastics. | Xena Bunton

Jake Flatley from WV Metro News ironically wrote, “The primary color for Marshall University is kelly green but that’s not stopping the university from attempting to become more green.”

The university was primarily able to make this sustainable decision because of Marshall’s Sustainability Club, founded by club president Baleigh Epperly and club co-leader Abi Taylor in early 2019. The club provided a petition of nearly 1,000 signatures to request Marshall University and the food service operation on campus, Sodexo, to review the plastic and Styrofoam consumption on campus.

The club also orchestrated a brand audit in the fall semester of 2020 with Marshall’s sustainability department manager Amy Parsons-White and 13 club members. The club reported that after five hours of sorting from two residence buildings, they collected 195 plastic items that could be recycled and 829 plastic items that could not be—adding up to 1,024 total plastic products.

Marshall’s sustainability club gathers trash from residence buildings. | Photo courtesy of sustainability club

Parsons-White has been an activist for plastic-use and pollution ever since she grew up on a farm as a child.

“Plastic can be around for thousands of years, and since less than 30% of plastic sent to recycling facilities actually gets recycled, that adds up to a lot of waste with no place to go,” Parsons-White said. “It ends up in the oceans, in the ground, and microplastics have been found in our drinking water. This can pose a health risk to people and animals.”

Goose in Huntington, W.Va., watches trash flow through their home in solitude. | Xena Bunton

According to a 2020 study published on Science, an international team of researchers estimated that 19 to 23 million metric tons of plastic waste ended up in aquatic ecosystems in 2016.

Marshall was not only busy with the plastic pledge in the past two years, but the sustainability department has also successfully turned what used to be a storage room into the first compost facility in West Virginia and will be the second largest on the east coast.

Commercial digester being delivered to Marshall Compost Facility. | Courtesy of University Communications

“I credit Amy Parsons-White for her leadership and vision in putting Marshall at the forefront of sustainability in West Virginia,” Gilbert said. “…This will be a game-changer for Marshall and the Huntington community.”

According to the press release, the facility has the capacity to compost eight tons of organic waste per day.

Once the facility is operational, Marshall will be 70% waste free as they will take all of Marshall’s food waste, lawn waste, white office paper and cardboard that will go into a grinder.

With the goal of opening the facility by the end of the spring semester, the facility will also have a 5’ x 40’ worm bed that can hold 50,000 red-wigglers allowing the department to produce worm castings.

Parsons-White said the facility will be certified by The United States Composting Council and will be EPA certified, meaning the compost has been tested free of any chemicals and are nutritionally balanced.

Although Marshall is making sustainable changes, Cabell County is still struggling to allow residents to recycle.

“Not everybody who stops at a recycling bin has good intentions,” Mark Buchanan, Cabell County Solid Waste Authority, said.

Due to the lack of waste knowledge and mixing the wrong products in recycling bins, Cabell County residents who wish to recycle must pay a yearly fee for proper containers and access to the county facility. Buchanan said Cabell County does not have a composting facility because of improper management.

To increase the composting activity in Cabell County, Parsons-White said she has worked with senators and delegates to potentially take composting beyond Marshall’s campus.

Cabell County is not the only county like this, and it only gets worse around the Mountain State.

On March 5th of 2021, Berkeley County Solid Waste Authority’s Clint Hogbin announced they are not collecting plastic at any of their drop-off locations because of market issues. Hogbin said Berkeley County residents were filling “tractor trailers full of plastics and paper” faster than they could get them emptied at times.

“Plastic containers continue to be a topic where we’re having trouble finding affordable markets. It’s not just Berkeley County. It’s happening all over the country,” Hogbin told the Panhandle News Network.

“We’ve always found another way, we’ve always worked hard behind the scenes to find another market,” Hogbin said. “But the I’m afraid the current situation is not sustainable. And I hate to say that, but that’s just the realism. It’s more expensive than our budget supports.”

As Hogbin states that this is happening all over the county, it is essential to recognize this problem is also happening all over West Virginia.

After contacting all 55 counties in West Virginia, 67.2% of the counties have some sort of free recycling program in 2021, whether that is cardboard, paper or only collecting tires. Only 41.8% of the counties include plastic in that deal.

There are four additional counties that recycle plastic but include a city fee that push West Virginia plastic-recycling counties up to 49% of plastic recycling overall.

25.4% of West Virginia counties include no recycling program at all.

West Virginia Counties color-coded depending on recycling availability. | Xena Bunton

The responses from West Virginia counties about no program varied — COVID-19 reasons, lack of finances, no location for a facility or the need of proper management. Some counties do not have a program due to destruction. Ritchie County, for example, had a fire this past December in their recycling facility and have to decline recycling donations.

Plastic-reduction in the state has been a conversation in the West Virginia Capitol Building for over a decade.

West Virginia Capitol Building located in Charleston, W.Va. | Photo courtesy of Austin O’Connor (@oco_photo)

The House Bill 2500, that was introduced on February 15 of 2021, was passed by the West Virginia House to disallow municipalities from banning certain plastics and to-go containers. The bill was passed 79 to 19 and will move to senate to continue the discussion of regulating, prohibiting or imposing a fee of plastic grocery bags, to-go food containers and plastic silverware.

This is not the first time West Virginia lawmakers have introduced a possible bill to ban plastic shopping statewide. In 2008, a similar bill was introduced in the House of Delegates that they predicted would ultimately phase out the use of plastic bags by 2011. Obviously, this did not happen. The state is still discussing this plastic problem in 2021 when 50.8% of West Virginia counties either have a recycling program that does not recycle plastic, or the county does not have a recycling program at all.

With the help of Marshall students and staff, this might just be the decade to see a sustainable climb in the Mountain State.

Xena Bunton can be contacted at [email protected].



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