How SFU and representatives of the disability community came together to improve the Re-use for Good initiative

From training to toolkits, the initiative’s organizers have plans to reduce SUPPs while accommodating the entire SFU community

Photo: Chris Ho / The Peak

Written by: Paige Riding, News Writer

In the Fall 2019 semester, SFU rolled out the Re-use for Good initiative across its three campuses. The initiative focuses on reducing single-use plastics in various areas, including dining locations and the SFU Bookstore. Its ultimate goal is “To implement and promote reusable alternatives to single-use plastics and disposable products (SUPPs),” according to their website. The Peak previously covered this initiative in the fall. 

As stated in previous coverage,  although a representative of SFU’s Sustainability Office advised that those requesting straws and other tools do not have to justify their requests, some students scrutinized this approach. They questioned whether these plastic products are truly accessible if they must be requested rather than just being readily available. Secondly, they asked how students with disabilities could be involved in the decision-making, to avoid unknowingly harming or segregating those who depend on these products for their daily lives. Since the fall semester, there have been changes made to the approach of the Reuse for Good campaign.


Single-Use Plastics around Canada

Under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Government of Canada is seeking to ban “harmful single-use plastics” by 2021. According to the Prime Minister’s website, the Act will work to ban single-use plastics that are considered detrimental to the overall health of the human population and the environment. The page mentions that all plastic bans will only occur following extensive research. This research includes socio-economic considerations and public consultations. Examples of these plastics include, but are not limited to: plastic bags, cutlery, straws, and stir sticks. 

On a wider scope, the City of Vancouver continues to roll out its Single-Use Item Reduction Strategy in 2020. Beginning with foam containers and progressing to banning straws, disposable utensils, and plastic bags in the future, the program mentions an “accessibility requirement” for vendors to provide SUPPs such as straws and utensils. The website notes that “Anyone who asks for a flexible plastic straw, individually wrapped in paper, should receive one. People are not required, and should not be asked, to provide any medical information to prove their need.”

SFU is not the only university reducing their SUPPs. The University of British Columbia began charging students for single-use coffee cups with the minimum price at 25 cents. The university swapped out plastic straws for compostable, bendable ones for accessibility purposes — available upon request.


Re-use for Good Phase One outcome

While the initiative continues at SFU with environmental impact in mind, for students like Sanam Prasad, a fourth-year history major at SFU, such actions can be harmful if proper training is not provided for staff.

“I had a severe allergic reaction to one of the biodegradable straws that the Re-use for Good Initiative replaced the plastic straws with [ . . . ] I became extremely paranoid of the biodegradable products that have been put in, particularly since I have been told by my doctor that it is likely that I might go into anaphylactic shock the next time I have a reaction like that,” Prasad noted in an emailed interview with The Peak. Prasad requires straws due to severe hand pain and other concerns that compromise her ability to drink. 

“Personally, I just started trying to get plastic straws from other places because it’s far easier for me to do that rather than have to deal with that constant worry,” she continued. “I do wish that they had listened to us when we stated that training of staff should happen before this initiative is rolled out because it would have likely prevented me from experiencing that particular medical emergency.” 

Prasad’s experience led the Re-use committee to reconsider their approaches to accessibility. Kayla Blok, Manager of Campus Sustainability noted that, “Since the launch of the first phase, there were some challenges that we faced in terms of communication around accessibility [ . . . ] What we wanted to do right away was listen and chime in, hear what students had to say: what are the concerns, what are we missing?” 

She noted that the task force listened to recommendations from the Disability and Neurodiversity Alliance (DNA) and the SFSS Accessibility Committee. Representatives of the initiative tabled at StreetFest, a street festival held at UniverCity, and in Convocation Mall in an attempt to get student feedback. SFU’s Sustainability’s website also lists an email that students can provide feedback to as well, include accessibility concerns.

The Re-use for Good task force also hired Serena Bains as a paid student employee. Bains acts as a liaison between the Re-use for Good initiative and both neurodiverse students and students with disabilities on campus. Blok stated that one of Bains’ main tasks is ensuring appropriate, inclusive language is used throughout all advertising and messaging of the campaign. In this way, Bains is working to close the gap between the task force and the students with disabilities on campus. 

“A big piece of that really has been around the training with Chartwell staff,” said Blok. She added that Bains helped to train the Chartwells staff, including explaining how it may impact a person with a disability if they are unable to get the required straw.  

Blok stated that the task force took suggestions for what should be used to replace plastic straws as the primary option. As recommended by the DNA, a toolkit with utensils, a medical-grade silicone-tipped metal straw, and a foldable straw are available at SFPIRG, the SFSS office on Burnaby, and the Centre for Accessible Learning. According to Blok, the kits will become available at the Surrey and Vancouver campuses in the future.

While Prasad believes that a better training procedure may have helped to avoid her situation, she wrote, “I personally think that the instigators of the initiative have been at least been trying to speak [to] the disability community more [ . . . ] I have personally met with the people involved in the initiative and I do think that they are trying, as they seem to be receptive to the suggestions and ideas of SFU’s disability community.”

Bains mentioned that the feedback for the initiative thus far has been “mostly positive” from those who contacted her during Phase One, other than with matters around training concerns and the initiative’s fast-paced rollout. She noted that training for this initiative should occur “at a speed where it’s not too fast where everything’s being taken away, but also at a speed where people aren’t being injured or having their needs not met.”


Phase Two of the initiative: what’s to come

According to Blok, SFU will be holding an open forum in the spring semester about the Re-use for Good initiative. “It’ll kind of be like a ‘lunch and learn,’ so [students] can find out more about the project,” Blok explained when asked about the future for the initiative.

She adds, “We want to learn from any mistakes that we’ve made and make improvements going forward, particularly on the accessibility side of things. And the big one for that really is the training that Serena mentioned.” She further emphasized that training for staff will be a key focus of the initiative in the future.

There is a survey available online for SFU patrons to provide feedback on the initiative and its future directions.

Bains touched on training as a matter to consider in the future efforts, as well.

“Once you get the point across that straws are needs [for some] to be able to live and it’s a necessity, most people are understanding. And it’s just about educating and training the staff appropriately,” Bains said.

“Moving towards the future, I think the difference between Phase One and Phase Two will be that instead of being reactive, we’ll be proactive — especially with the plastic bottles on campus,” she said. “

“I’ve given Kayla and the team some notes about any concerns or what we should look out for in the future to avoid what happened with the straw ban, and to renew the culture at SFU where disabled and neurodiverse people have a voice at the table.”