The Office of Sustainability partnered with the Lehigh University Bookstore to launch EcoCoin, a program incentivizing customers to go bagless while supporting campus philanthropic organizations.
Audrey McSain, sustainability program manager, said the program is simple: upon purchasing an item, bookstore customers make the choice between taking a plastic bag for their item or declining one, in which case their cashier will give them a small wooden nickel called an EcoCoin. The customer can drop the EcoCoin in one of two collection bins dedicated to a different student organization.
McSain said at the end of the year they will tally up the EcoCoins, which have a monetary value of about 5 cents, in each bin and make a donation to the respective clubs.
“We always talk with our students about how individual actions build up into broader impacts,” McSain said. “This program really can help show that impact, not just in the reduction of waste, but also amplifying it into a broader impact in the sense of philanthropy. ”
McSain said the program came about as part of Lehigh’s Sustainability Strategic Plan 2030. The EcoCoin program is one of many efforts to help fulfill their goal of reducing waste across campus.
McSain said when designing the 2030 Plan, Lehigh placed emphasis on being strategic in forming goals with their partners across campus. Since the bookstore was already dedicated to helping reduce the use of single-use plastic on campus, this program posed as a great opportunity to further the missions of both the bookstore and Office of Sustainability.
“Our goal at the bookstore is just to work with the University and help with whatever goals and standards that the university has. So, helping with sustainability – no brainer, right?” said Renee Lutz, Lehigh University Bookstore manager. “We have no problems helping with that and then in the meantime, supporting student clubs – on all aspects it’s a win.”
Lutz said being able to save money on bags only sweetened the deal.
To encourage customers to choose the coins over the bag, Lutz said she put six coins in each bin to start. She said she is pleasantly surprised to see the pile has grown in just a few days and has received a positive response from customers.
Lutz not only thought EcoCoin was a perfect fit for Lehigh, but she was familiar with the program, having worked at the Penn State University Bookstore where EcoCoin originated.
McSain said they spoke to organizers at Penn State about how they designed the program, which gave them insight into how they would implement the program here.
Zachary Ruffin, ‘21, product design major, led the design for EcoCoin. He said he drew inspiration from program materials from Penn State, as well as the deliverable McSain wanted for the Lehigh community to create the coin, posters and business cards for the clubs.
“The original Penn State coin was like a ‘C’ that almost looked like a cash sign, so I was trying to find a way to have the ‘ECO’ represent not only saving money but look visually interesting and dynamic,” Ruffin said. “I found a way to make the symbol turn into an ‘E’ and then find a way to highlight different parts of the design so that each letter in ‘ECO’ has a moment to shine.”
Ruffin said it took about a month to design the coin, two to three weeks for the posters and about a month for the clubs’ business cards.
McSain said they started the initiative in summer 2021 and completed the bulk of the work in fall 2021, which allowed them to launch in January.
McSain said the Office of Sustainability wanted to make sure they engaged the campus community and allowed a diverse set of voices to be a part of the club selection process. They sent out a call for nominations to the student body in early fall and put the nominations to a vote held by the Student Senate and the Lehigh Sustainability Council.
The 2022 recipients of the funds are the Eco-Rep Leadership Program and the Lehigh Outing Club.
Emma Burke, ‘22, Outing Club president, said she was pleasantly surprised to find out the Outing Club is a recipient of the funding and did not know the program existed before then.
“For me personally, and I would like to say for Outing Club, being sustainable is super, super important,” Burke said. “I’m from New York City, and in New York City we don’t really use plastic bags, and if you do get a bag, you have to pay for it. When I come to school in Pennsylvania, it’s definitely something I notice, just the frequency of plastic bags being used. As an organization that is outdoor oriented, this program as a whole is really fantastic for making students aware of their use of plastic bags on campus.”
Burke said the club plans to put the funding towards climbing and backpacking gear so they can increase trip attendance.
Ajah Quawiy, ‘23, Eco-Rep coordinator, said she is excited to see the EcoCoin program running alongside some of their own events in Campus Race to Zero Waste, an eight-week national waste diversion and recycling competition against other colleges and universities to promote waste reduction.
Quawiy said the Eco Reps intend to put the funding from EcoCoin toward promoting sustainable behavior changes in the community.
“A lot of our stuff goes towards events and also educating our members,” Quawiy said. “We don’t only do stuff for campus, we also are educating our members so that they can educate their peers. In the past years, we’ve been able to go on trips.”
McSain said she is excited to see what they are able to accomplish with EcoCoin in its pilot year. Their ultimate goal is to eliminate plastic bags from the bookstore entirely by 2025.
“I’d like to see it get to the point where the program is no longer needed,” Lutz said. “That would be the end goal because then we’re at a place where we’re not putting out more plastic into the environment and to the campus community…That would be excellent.”