As part of AKU's work on environmental stewardship and sustainability, addressing the use of plastics is of major importance.
While plastics provide many benefits for modern day living, plastic waste is a widely recognised local and global problem. Plastic takes hundreds of years to degrade, takes up valuable space in landfill sites and is polluting to our environment on land as well as in our oceans.
Most plastics are neither biodegradable nor do they get reused or recycled. Experts believe that more than half of plastic products are single-use, meaning they are used once before being discarded. A simple plastic bag can take up to 300 years to decompose, while a plastic bottle takes around 450 years!
AKU aims to be part of the worldwide shift to rethinking the use of single-use plastics. We aim to be part of the solution and to implement more sustainable practices in all that AKU does.
The range of single-use plastics on our campuses is diverse and reducing use is a complex issue in AKU's geographies of operation. AKU recognizes that not all single-use plastics on our campuses and health care services can be eliminated. But as far as possible, AKU will try to reduce the use of single use plastic items.
Why phase out single-use plastic water bottles?
As a first step, AKU is looking to phase out single-use plastic water bottles from all campuses globally. Why?
Plastic is made from crude oil, and specifically water bottles are made of a plastic called PET, polyethylene terephthalate. Oil and other fossil fuels are the single largest source of the planet's heating and human-caused climate change.
- Plastic degrades very slowly. On average, a single plastic water bottle takes around 450 years to decompose. Research has found that PET bottles are the third most common item found in ocean debris. Fish and other ocean life ingest so-called microplastics, which eventually ends up in the human food chain too. Worse, residue from plastic degradation can be toxic to life in the sea and on land. We wish more plastic would be recycled, but in the geographies that host AKU campuses this is not available. Reduction of plastic is the only solution.
- There is a significant greenhouse gas footprint (measured in CO2 equivalent) to various parts of a water bottle's life. A 500ml bottle's PET is responsible for about 54 grams of CO2e, while filling, packaging and transport add another nearly 60 grams. Cooling depends on the environment but easily adds another 50 grams, whereas landfill disposal creates around 20 grams of CO2e per bottle. Every 500 ml water bottle creates more than 170 grams of CO2e emissions – contrasted with the utility of a bottle that is used for just a few minutes!
- It takes at least three litres of water to produce one litre of bottled water. In countries where water is scarce (including Pakistan), this is a particular concern.
Bottled water is expensive. The consumer of single-use water bottles pays for production, packaging, marketing and a retailer markup, which is thousands the time of the price of the product (water) itself.
Hence, AKU is taking on this campaign to significantly reduce its environmental footprint. AKU also hopes that we can encourage not just our campus communities but also external stakeholders to become ambassadors and share the message to create a cleaner planet beyond AKU campuses.
What has been the impact?
The campaign to phase out single use plastic bottles started in December 2021 with the aim to contribute to multiple positive effects to support environmental stewardship and sustainability, including:
- Limiting AKU's contribution to landfill and ocean pollution by
reducing more then 77% of single-use plastic water bottles in AKU facilities in Pakistan. In Kenya, the full (100%) phase out of single use plastic water bottles has been completed in all AKU-controlled areas (while encouraging third-party cafes and gift shop on campus).
- AKU's greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production as well as bottle transport, cooling and waste have been reduced. This is around 8500 kg of CO2e for the avoided bottles in Pakistan and another 1000 kg of CO2e for avoided bottles in Kenya - saved each month!
- Conversations between staff, students, faculty and patients have created awareness and stimulated thousands of people to be multipliers and influencers within society at large.
- Learning about other areas of waste reduction at AKU. For example, at AKU in Pakistan is in process of transitioning from plastic single use cutlery to birchwood cutlery.
What has changed?
AKU is doing everything possible to ensure that on our campuses, everyone has access to safe sources of drinking water. Water fountains or dispensers for drinking cooled water are widely available in all cafeterias and in most courtyards. Filtered water in drinking water fountains is tested internally as well as sent for third party testing on a regular basis and has been certified safe for all communities to consume.
AKU continues to encourage all students, staff and faculty to bring their own reusable water bottles. Out-patients, visitors and attendants are provided with compostable paper water cups where required. For in-patients as well as during events and conferences, filtered water and glasses are provided.