Living in a material world: One student's quest to reduce his plastic waste

Tiffany Fu
April 17, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Think about your average day. Could you eliminate plastic from it?

Remember there’s plastic in your sneakers and many of your clothes. Don’t forget your shampoo and toothpaste containers. Eliminate the cling wrap, sandwich baggies and plastic bottles from your kitchen. What about the credit cards and ID cards in your wallet? Planning to use a pen or a computer in class? Going to pick up the phone or turn on a light switch? They all contain plastic, too. So, can you really get this non-biodegradable material out of your life?

“Everywhere I look, I see tons of plastic cups, bowls, utensils, bags, etc. I [notice] how much waste our community creates,” explained Harrison Brennan, a Penn State Schreyer Honors College freshman.

Penn State Freshman Harrison Brennan

Harrison Brennan, a Schreyer Honors College freshman, is trying to eliminate single-use plastics from his life.

IMAGE: Penn State

For Brennan, this became a challenge — a plastics challenge. While he can’t eliminate all plastic, he’s trying to live without single-use plastic items. Part of the impetus for this lifestyle switch was his Rhetoric and Civic Life class at the University. When his professor asked him to facilitate a public deliberation on an important issue facing our community, Brennan chose plastics.

“It ended up being an awesome way for the community to come together and discuss potential solutions to the single-use waste problem,” Brennan said.

While Brennan had always tried to live an eco-friendly lifestyle, he had never realized until then how much single-use plastics are a part of life, especially as a college student. 

“I decided to completely eliminate single-use plastic indefinitely in an attempt to further my environmentally-conscious lifestyle,” Brennan said. “Even though I am only one person, I believe even a small effort can go a long way in creating societal change.”

Brennan is not the only Penn Stater trying to make an impact on society through small changes. For example, Penn State faculty and staff participating in the University’s Green Paws program track their waste on a worksheet for a day to create awareness of the materials they use and discard. 

“With this knowledge, participants have the ability to make better choices and all be sustainability champions for Penn State,” explained Lydia Vandenbergh, director of the Green Paws Program for the Sustainability Institute. “Due to changes in recycling availability nationwide, many consumers are becoming frustrated by the lack of non-plastic options, leading more people to be like Brennan and use reusable water bottles and coffee cups.” 

According to Brennan, often times the most challenging aspects of trying to achieve this lifestyle change have been these smallest details. Eating out usually comes with a plastic fork, cup and/or straw, which add up quickly. To eliminate these items, Brennan has had to plan ahead and make sure he always has substitutes ready for typical plastic items. He carries with him reusable straws, reusable canvas bags for groceries, and has begun to ask for iced drinks in a glass rather than a plastic cup.

“While remembering to always have an alternative to plastics with you is difficult at times, most are easy to use. Now that I’ve formed a habit of avoiding plastic, I don’t even have to think about it,” said Brennan.

For Brennan, the most satisfying part of the challenge has been how easy it is to reduce his own waste. 

“I would recommend another student to do the challenge simply because I believe it is a great way to become more aware of your own habits and introduce a positive change into your routine,” said Brennan.

Part of that awareness easily can start this week, as the Penn State community is being encouraged to consider the future of the University's waste management. Individuals can participate in a survey being emailed to all Penn State community members and can submit questions/comments on draft recommendations of the Waste Stream Task Force at

Even as he is trying to make a difference as an individual, Brennan believes that if our community works together to refuse plastic products, companies will have no choice but to start offering plastic-free alternatives in response to basic laws of supply and demand. Brennan may be one of many making a difference with his plastic challenge, but he encourages others to challenge themselves too. 

“I honestly feel like a better person since starting the challenge. It has made me a more mindful member of the community as well as given me an opportunity to talk to many of my fellow students about the issue,” concluded Brennan. “One person has the potential to make great strides in increasing sustainability; but as a team, we are unstoppable.”

Last Updated April 17, 2019