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University of California, Davis

What can you learn about UC Davis from its interest in olives and plastic bags? Olives are an ancient delicacy with nutritional and cultural significance, while plastic bags exemplify twentieth-century disposable convenience with little intrinsic or aesthetic value. Together they demonstrate how a university partners with neighboring communities to convert trash to treasure, reduce waste, and produce new revenue streams.

The Bags Across the Globe (BAG) project raises international awareness about the environmental threat of plastic shopping bags. Large-scale sculptures and student-made cloth bags offer eye-catching ways to reduce waste. The olive story began with the university’s groundskeeper’s inspiration to turn squashed olives from a costly, slippery, and smelly campus hazard into liquid gold. Partnering with academics, farmers, and industry professionals, the Olive Center undertakes research, educational activities, and advocacy to raise state and federal quality standards.

At the Festival, visitors stitched old T-shirts into new bags, tied bags onto the sculpture, and saw the effects of plastic bags on a camel’s digestive system. They also learned about variations in olive oil quality, the language of tastings, and what it really means to be “extra virgin.”

Such “sustainable solutions” are essential to UC Davis’s mission to lead interdisciplinary innovation on solutions to the world’s most critical issues, including food and the environment. From compostable flatware to a trash-eating, energy-producing biodigester, UC Davis shows that, with the right approach, “It’s all good.”

Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, sustainability projects, educational outreach, and more.