FLORENCE — Crews at the University of north Alabama keep the maintain the beauty of the grounds by keeping it neatly trimmed, mowed and clear of debris, but when the sun hits it just right, you can see a glint, a sparkle of something mixed with the mulch beneath the hedges.
It's confetti. Specifically, the plastic kind of differing colors that cling to pine needles and mulch, and is occasionally carried off by unsuspecting squirrels.
Harrison Plaza with its stunning, centerpiece fountain is a natural draw for graduates and others seeking an iconic backdrop for photos. But UNA officials say there have been photo sessions that include a scattershot of confetti, which is then left behind when the picture taking is over.
“We’re trying to encourage our staff, students, faculty and our university community and guests to think about how to help us maintain this beautiful campus and keep it environmentally friendly,” said Brenda Webb, who chairs the Department of Physics and Earth Science.
The confetti made of plastic, or Mylar, is particularly troublesome, not just from a litter standpoint but has an additional impact on the environment, she said.
“We’re concerned the foil-type confetti and small plastic pieces can be mistaken for food sources by small animals,” she said.
She said the pieces also get into water systems.
Michael Gautney, assistant vice president of Facilities Administration and Planning at UNA, said crews are diligent about vacuuming the confetti from sidewalks and grounds, but can’t get every piece, especially those that are beneath hedges or that mix in with mulch.
“A lot of the pictures are being made near the fountain ... and some of the confetti will end up in the fountain itself. Most of that will go into our strainers ... but some make it into our fountain pump,” he said.
When that happens, the fountain must be turned off and cleaned out, Gautney said. It is a process that can take “anywhere from two to four hours,” he said.
Gautney said the problem with confetti is not unique to UNA, but has been impacting campuses across the country. He said several colleges have implemented plans and policies to address the problem.
Jake Dittel, a professor of biology at UNA, said the confetti’s impact on wildlife can be fatal.
“If you’ve seen a squirrel who died from it, it’s likely that it choked on it,” Dittel said. “Or if they eat large amounts, it can cause blockage to their digestive systems.”
Dittel said death from consuming the plastic confetti could even be long-term.
“Once that plastic is in the environment, it’s pretty much never leaving,” he said. “Even if that plastic doesn’t kill the animal, it can remain in their system a long time. The chemical make-up could cause a long-term effect in the animal.”
UNA officials are asking that when a photo shoot calls for a shower of celebratory confetti to instead use flower petals, plant or bird seed, or “vanishing” confetti that will degrade.
Ribbon wands and bubbles are also encouraged.