BENNINGTON — Former Regional EPA Administrator Judith Enck, a faculty member this fall at Bennington College, is launching a national initiative on campus next year called Beyond Plastics.
Enck hopes to work with college students and community leaders around the country to reduce plastic pollution, particularly from single-use plastic packaging.
The project will begin in January, Enck said Monday, and it be housed in the college's Center for the Advancement of Public Action. There will be outreach efforts and a project website to provide information and advice and foster communication for what Enck hopes will become a broad grass-roots effort.
Enck is a visiting faculty member this fall at the college and in January will become a Senior Fellow. She'll teach two spring semester courses related to the growing worldwide problem of plastics pollution:"Addressing a Growing Environmental Problem: Plastic Pollution" and "Plastic Pollution: What Can We Do About It?"
The courses will include community engagement and work with local policymakers.
"At Bennington, students take on the complex and urgent problems facing society, now," said college President Mariko Silver. "The Beyond Plastics project will engage students directly in the thinking and problem solving required to tackle the pressing problem of plastics pollution. With Judith Enck's experienced leadership and the insights and hard work of Bennington students, we all look forward to significant outcomes from this effort."
"I have had my eye on plastics for a long time," Enck said.
She said the millions of pounds of plastic that enter oceans every year pose a threat to fish, wildlife and the marine environment, with unknown implications to human health.
One study she highlighted during a recent forum at CAPA found that 90 percent of sampled table salt brands globally were found to be contaminated by microplastics. It is estimated that unless major change takes place 2050 there will be more plastic by weight in the ocean than fish, Enck said.
Recently, the European Parliament approved a ban on single-use plastics to help combat this issue, and Enck said that is the type of action she hopes community activists working with students in their hometowns can help enact locally.
She said there already is interest in a ban on plastic shopping bags in Bennington.
"This is much larger than one campus," she said, adding that outreach efforts will include use of social media and "old school approaches," such as letters to newspapers and becoming involved in proposing and passing a local ordinance to address plastics use.
Enck also is working with students on a plastics inventory on the North Bennington campus with the aim of reducing the amount used, and on a curriculum relating to plastics issues for elementary schools.
The former EPA administrator for the region including New York during the Obama administration, Enck said she'll also offer technical expertise so that community groups "don't have to reinvent the wheel" in advocating for or petitioning for changes.
In addition to the website, she said she's willing to meet with groups about their proposals.
"And I will always bring students," she said. "I want to train the next student leaders" in protecting the environment.
"We want to launch a grass-roots movement on single-use plastic packaging from the ground up," Enck said. "There is no way we are going to get anything from Congress. They are whole owned by the plastics industry."
She said she hopes the initiative will enhance the image of Bennington College concerning the environment among students around the world.
"I am excited to roll up my sleeves and work on policies to reduce plastic pollution while also training college students on civic engagement," she said. "It is an honor to be affiliated with Bennington College and the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at the College. My entire professional life has revolved around promoting public action to protect the environment. I am looking forward to this education experience and thank Bennington College for embracing this new environmental initiative."
People who are interested can sign up to receive periodic information about the project.
Beyond Plastics is supported by gifts from individuals and foundations. Anyone interested in supporting the project can do so by contacting Enck at JudithEnck@Bennington.edu or 518-605-1770.
Enck also is working on climate change issues as a senior advisor at the Center for Climate Integrity.
Besides serving seven years with the EPA, she previously was Deputy Secretary for the Environment in the New York Governor's Office, and served as a policy advisor in the New York Attorney General's Office. Enck began her career in the environmental community serving as executive director of Environmental Advocates and Senior Environmental Associate at the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal.