Teaching for change: Bennington professor inspires youth to reduce plastic pollution

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BENNINGTON — When Judith Enck was a regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration, she supervised a staff of 800 people and a budget of $700 million. Before that, she advised two New York governors on environmental policy. She regularly rubbed elbows with the politically powerful, and remains on a first-name basis with assorted state and federal lawmakers.

Now, she teaches 40 students at Bennington College, with an enrollment of about 800.

"This is much better," Enck said, casually dressed and taking a break from one of the two classes she is teaching this semester as a visiting professor. "This is more fun, and I really enjoy working with students."

Plastic pollution is the main subject in both of Enck's classes, and Bennington College hosts Beyond Plastics, a nationwide campaign launched by Enck in January. Beyond Plastics has an office within the college's Center for the Advancement of Public Action.

"We work with communities around the country on policies that reduce plastic pollution," Enck said. "Since we began, we've been completely overwhelmed with the public response."

Beyond Plastics advocates for legislation known as the "plastic trifecta," which bans single-use plastic bags, polystyrene cups and other foam-like packaging and requires eateries to provide plastic straws to patrons only upon request.

Vermont lawmakers passed a version of the legislation earlier this year, and Gov. Phil Scott signed it into law in June. It will take effect next year.

"These are the things you see littered, not plastic chairs and car bumpers," Enck said. "We're trying to chip away at the plastic packaging that's more likely to be littered and more likely to get into rivers and ultimately the ocean."

Some 9 million metric tons of plastics enter the oceans every year, Enck said, and the volume is so great that she once wondered if armadas of vessels the size of cruise liners were going out to sea and disgorging their cargoes of plastics. Research, according to Enck, has found that 80 percent of the plastic in the ocean began as land-based pollution.

"It's washed into storm drains, then into rivers, into lakes, and then into oceans," she said. "We're starting with single-use plastics because that's the easiest material to replace and it's 43 percent of plastic production."

For the fall semester at Bennington College, 30 students are enrolled in Enck's introductory class, "Plastic Pollution: What Can We Do About It?" Another 10 are in the advanced class, "Addressing a Growing Environmental Problem: Plastic Pollution."

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While teaching the upper level class recently, Enck did not lecture from behind a podium. She moved about the room as she spoke to students, laughing at times, then turning and writing names on a whiteboard as she worked out the logistics of getting students to a plastic pollution conference in another state. The instructor views her work in the classroom as integral to the Beyond Plastics campaign.

"Public action is a big part of the classes," Enck said.

Along with student Louis Celt, Enck testified in Montpelier before state lawmakers voted on the plastic trifecta legislation. Other students met with senators and representatives ahead of the vote.

Students in the introductory class are required to send a letter to the editor of a newspaper on a topic that is related to plastic pollution.

Enck wants to build Beyond Plastics into a student-led movement to end the epidemic of plastic pollution. Since it is aimed at a younger audience accustomed to constant communication, Beyond Plastics has a large digital presence, with accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

On the group's website, BeyondPlastics.org, there is a model bill that state and local lawmakers can use as a starting point for drafting their own plastic trifecta legislation. Beyond Plastics representatives met with city councilors and the mayor in Troy, N.Y., ahead of the council's unanimous passage last month of a version of the plastics trifecta.

"We give a lot of information," Enck said. "I hear from policymakers who are concerned and want to know what they can do in their own space."

The website also has a model letter consumers can send to the leadership of their supermarkets.

"I shop at your store. I want you to provide more products with fewer plastic packaging," Enck said, reading an outline of the letter.

Beyond Plastics is funded by grants and donations and not student tuition, Enck carefully pointed out, before noting the college provided the program with office space without charge. Enck administrates Beyond Plastics with two part-time workers. A fourth person is in the office for 10 hours a week.

"We don't mind appearing bigger than we are," Enck said. "We're not looking to get bigger. We're looking to have more impact."

Charles Erickson is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Southern Vermont Landscapes.


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