“Ban Plastic Now” – SUSU At Its Worst


At the SUSU AGM on Wednesday, a policy entitled “Ban Plastic Now” was passed. It’s a shame that this policy demonstrates just how incoherent Union policies are, with no long-term perspective.

Firstly, to start with some context, 20 minutes before two o’clock, the union resolved to ban plastic water bottles has been rejected by the AGM on the grounds that it was too extreme, rash and had unpredictable financial implications. Yet, 20 minutes later another policy was passed: “Ban all mixed plastic-cardboard tea/coffee cups, plastic straws, plastic cutlery, polystyrene packaging”, “ban all plastic bags” and too “phase out all plastic packaging” within three years. The logic of this is completely backwards. Why does the AGM, and students, stand up against removing water bottles only then to not stop mandates banning all plastic?

So now the union is left needing to “[ban]all plastic, especially non-recyclable plastic by the end of the next academic year”. This whole idea is simply too rash.

Firstly, what are the financial implications? SUSU President, Ben Franklin, stated at the AGM, that plastic bottles bring £30,000 into Union funds every year, not accounting for other income received from the Union shop were plastic used to wrap items (at a cost effective price). We should add here that the typical environmentalist argument that ‘recycling is cheaper’ is rubbish –  experts, at the School of Enigneering, have shown that recycling is more expensive than the oil used to make plastic. So, following this policy, the union is left needing to recuperate an immediate income until recyclable alternatives can be found at an equivalent price. This means less funds to put into Union groups that are already squeezed in funding (including, ironically, the groups requesting these changes!). It should also be added that the policy passed quoting that recyclable plastic is equivalent on the guise that “SUSU sells a bottle of water for £1”. Its a shame that the proposer had not done their research, as bottles are sold from 79p in the Union Shop.


There is a right way to go about these changes. SUSU’s Student Switch Off Society has the right idea – it lobbies for more awareness and education surrounding environmental awareness as well as taking part in recycling and energy-saving events. This is the proper means of solving environmental problems. Meanwhile, SUSU – and the VP Welfare – don’t seem to have any long term vision and think that a rash, blunt, ignorant and frankly childish policy will solve the problem. The way to solve a problem is not simply to remove it; it is to educate and provide alternatives. If SUSU provided both plastic and recyclable alternatives, students may slowly realise the environmental benefits. Removing plastic will not make us the most sustainably aware union, it will just make us the most egotistic union ready to deploy buzz words, regardless of the awareness of those ideas amongst the student body.

Now, no one wants to be a monster about environmentalism, but equally the debates surrounding plastic are not as simple as ‘we should certainly get rid of it because its an environmental demon’. In fact, the topic is a hot debate with various academic and media articles arguing for more radical changes, against these changes and for a middle ground. The arguments for are well covered, but articles such as ‘Why Should We Not Ban Plastic Bags’ and more extensive academic pieces like Rich’s ‘Sustainability for Healthcare Management’ have all given valid reasons to reject the removal of plastic on environmental grounds. The problem is that the union, and its VP Welfare and committees, present this as a one-side debate, in that to be sustainable and promote the environment, we must ban all plastic. But that simply is not the case, and if you have been led to believe such you ought to properly review what is a serious academic, social and political debate.

This is just another example of the Union wanting to appear to be “moral” without really understanding what it is doing, or the debates it is engaging itself in. I’ve got many friends who are Marine Biologists, some of which support reducing our use of plastic due to its effects, some of which do not. The reality is that this is not a simple issue that if you disagree with it, makes you an environmental hater (whatever its advocates may have you believe). There has clearly been no consultation on this matter with the appropriate bodies and it has rather been left for some keen environmentalists and students uneducated on the manner to vote on, without realising the implications. SUSU may want to say this is democratic, but with this approach it certainly does not seem the case.

This whole idea is summed up nicely by a comment made by my lecturer when he heard about the AGM result: “well that’s just odd”. But then what can we expect from a Union with no space for desks in the library but who mandated to fit sleeping pods, and a Union that will now have an allotment in the space it does not have.


Discussion4 Comments

  1. avatar

    Hi Bruno,

    I’m really glad people are taking the time to write about Union politics, it’s a great form of democratic engagement. I just wanted to clarify a few points.

    When you say at ‘their AGM’ ‘SUSU passed’ a policy, you are in fact referring to Your AGM too, and the AGM belonging to every single student at this university. ‘SUSU’ quite literally is its members, so to condemn this policy isn’t necessarily to condemn SUSU, but the hundreds of students who voted for the policy (We increased our AGM voter turnout by 46% this year), and more importantly, the students who didn’t vote. I’m not blaming anyone here, we all have a responsibility to actively encourage students to take part in democracy- me more than anyone- but I just don’t want this story to seem as if the mystical entity of ‘SUSU’ has gone against student wishes.

    Secondly, I completely agree that policy is ineffective and has many issues, which is why something else that passed at the AGM was the democratic reform- which will completely change how we do democracy, and more importantly policies. In the new system, we will first vote on the principle of the idea (e.g. should the Union do x), then vote on the action plan to implement this. So just to be clear- changes are being made! 🙂

    Kerry Sclater
    VP Democracy and Creative Industries

  2. avatar
    Bruno Russell

    Hi Kerry,

    Thank you for your response. I see your point that *students* voted for this, though I know from some that it seemed that the proxy voting was regarding if you wanted the policy to be heard at the AGM, not if you actually wanted to pass it. So proxy voting may be an unrepresentative medium.

    My problem is with the complete ludicracy of parts of the policy and their infeasibility. Surely it should not get to a place where policies are having to be blocked once passed, but rather they should be monitored while they are being created. I mean there is no student guidance on creating policies if you have the template? A better process would surely be to work WITH students when they submit policy proposals, so that when it actually comes to a council (or hence Senate) meeting or AGM these issues are already resolved and time is not spend discussing a practically unfeasible policy, whatever good intentions lay behind it. That would mean you do not have to block passed polices later on for these exact reasons.

    What this shows is that there is perhaps more work to be done in the Democracy Review, to add to what has already been done (which, I should add, I think is a major improvement).

  3. avatar

    I think there is a lot of merit in proxy votes, because it means that every student can vote without having to physically attend the meeting, which obviously can be difficult for lots of students with lectures/jobs etc. I do see your point though that proxy meeting can mean you miss important information/development only discussed in the room- we do try to help this with live tweeting/streaming, but if you can suggest any improvements I would be grateful- it’s going to take a smarter person than me to solve!

    In terms of feasibility of this particular policy, I’m afraid I’m woefully ignorant- though apparently San Francisco have banned the sale of bottled water and they’ve been doing alright! I do agree though that policies are very problematic. This is why, as I just said, policy has now completely changed, so hopefully we can avoid these issues in the future. The new system will be:

    -Students submit ideas to You Make Change in the form of: ‘Should the Union X’ (this means that ideas can be debated in their essence first, before we talk about implementation)

    -After adequate student consultation, the idea will be decided upon by the appropriate group (perhaps a Zone, Senate, or a mass student vote).

    -Once the idea has passed, an officer will be tasked of coming up with an appropriate action plan (not policy) that will mean we can implement the idea in the most appropriate and effective way
    -This action plan will go back to the zone for approval.

    We definitely have a lot more to do in terms of effective implementation of the changes in the Democracy Review, but hopefully now the framework is there for improvements!

    P.S the full changes for democracy review are here if anyone wants to read: https://blogs.susu.org/officers/2016/02/19/introducing-the-new-democratic-structure/#content

  4. avatar
    Bruno Russell

    Hi Kerry,

    Thanks for your comments. I think we agree on this then. Proxy voting is good but needs improvements, mainly because I think it *leads* (maybe not the best word…) students to selecting an idea based on its prima facie sound or alluringness. Maybe online there needs to be a pro and con section each time something is opened up to be voted on in that way (like there was with the referendum).

    The new format sounds a LOT better, hopefully it will avoid another similar scenario and the proposed policies will be more practically feasible from the off-set, so that the actual good ethos behind them is what is portrayed within the policy. It’s good to see the Framework is there for improvement.

Leave A Reply