Humanities Speaker Series Focuses on Sustainability

A Message from Wendy Givoglu, Interim President, East and Winter Park Campuses

Professor of Humanities George Brooks decided this year’s Humanities Speaker Series was going to be themed “sustainability” when he selected the topics and speakers.

This past October, sea level rise expert John Englander spoke about his book “High Tide on Main Street,” which discusses the now inevitable reality of changing sea level.

In the same month, Jack Davis, professor of history at the University of Florida, shared the long history of the Gulf of Mexico, from pre-historic to modern times, in his book titled “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea.”

Following the theme of sustainability, in January, Director of Energy Conservation and Sustainability Carrie Black presented Valencia’s sustainability efforts. She reviewed the many projects that are underway, including repair of West Campus’ solar panels, rain harvest at Osceola Campus, the Food Scrap Program on West Campus and Plastic Writing Instrument and Battery Recycling on all campuses. An upcoming East Campus project is replacing the current parking lot lighting with retrofit LED lights.

The sustainability theme continued in February with keynote speaker, Susan Freinkel, author of “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story,” who also made several stops in science classes to discuss the environmental impacts in more detail, and also an art history class to discuss the effect of plastic on 20th-century art and design. Also at the keynote event, held at the Performing Arts Center, attendees received some swag: reusable bamboo utensils in a canvas bag to carry in their backpacks and cars to use in place of single-use plastic utensils at takeout restaurants and public events.

George’s concern over the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean, led him to discover Susan. “I found her book, loved the title, got a copy and read it. It is a fascinating page-turner,” he said.

Susan, a decorated science writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine, first began research for her book using a personal experiment. She spent one day attempting not to touch anything plastic. She quickly realized after walking into her bathroom that her toilet seat is plastic, her toothbrush is plastic and her shampoo bottle is plastic. She amended her initial experiment by spending the day writing down all the items she touched that were made of plastic. The list was extremely long, which underscores the reality that we are dependent on plastic in our everyday lives.

In her book, “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story,” Susan describes the history of the creation of plastic and how it has shaped our world stating, “Plastics freed us from the confines of the natural world, from the material constraints and limited supplies that had long bounded human activity.” For example, the elephant might have gone extinct in the 1800s due to the popularity of billiard balls made of ivory. With the creation of plastics, elephant tusks were no longer needed to make billiard balls, and turtle shells were no longer needed to make combs and glasses frames. Thus, a variety of luxury items could now be simulated using inexpensive plastics. This led to a large-scale democratization of what goods could be had by the masses.

Various types of plastic began taking over the market and entering homes. These products were indestructible, durable and long-lasting. Manufacturers determined in order to keep plastic marketable, they needed to advertise single-use and disposable plastic products, such as utensils, plates and cups. Advertising also focused on the convenience of disposable plastics, which reduced time and effort spent on household chores.

The positive attributes that drew our society to the use of plastics has become its downfall. Not all plastics can be recycled easily, which adds to our landfills and oceans. Susan urges everyone to utilize reusable plastics and remember to conserve plastic when possible.

George provided the following beginner tips on how to establish new and sustainable relationships with the plastics we use every day.

  • Choose cardboard over plastic containers wherever possible.
  • Do not use straws.
  • If you find yourself with plastic rings, cut them apart before discarding to prevent animals from being trapped in them.
  • Bring your own containers for leftovers when you go out to eat. Restaurant owners appreciate it too as those “To Go” containers cost money.
  • Use bar soap and bar shampoo. Excessive amounts of plastic go into making bottles for toiletries.
  • Remind the grocery stores: “No, plastic is not okay.” Bring your own reusable bags.
  • Use your own refillable water bottle.
  • Purchase reusable bamboo utensils: millions of plastic forks and spoons are discarded daily and end up in landfills and oceans.

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