When the 2009 end-of-semester environmental science symposium was postponed, Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Dana Royer was forced to think of a new idea for his class’ final project. What he devised was rooted in practicality: students were tasked with submitting a four-page proposal to boost Wesleyan’s sustainability, and Royer would select the top several for consideration by the Sustainability Office. This project proved so successful that Royer recycled the assignment three times.
“‘Introduction to Environmental Studies’ is designed as a gateway to the Earth and Environmental Sciences major and the Environmental Studies Program,” Royer said. “Sustainability isn’t the explicit focus, but a lot of the material we cover is directly related to it. We don’t just pay lip service to the fact that Environmental Studies is broad. One overarching theme is climate: energy, fossil fuels, food, and global warming.”
Projects this year ranged from conserving water to reducing off-campus air travel. Royer allows students to work in teams of no more than two. One such pair, Lizzy Elliott ’16 and Sonia Max ’17, took advantage of Royer’s efforts to encourage collaboration. Elliott and Max decided to focus their project on doing away with single-use cups, both plastic and paper.
“Our idea behind the project is that we’re trying to reduce hot and cold disposable cups,” Elliott said. “We still haven’t determined if the hot cups, which are made from post-consumer products, are recyclable or compostable. The cold cups are plastic, but they are not being recycled because people don’t realize and put them in the trash.”
Elliott and Max will propose a mug-sharing system that could operate in one of two ways. Their first idea would make reusable mugs just as convenient to use as paper cups.
“We think that people who care will continue to bring their reusable mugs to Pi Café and get the discount,” Elliott said. “But it’s the convenience of single-use cups—not wanting to carry them around and not wanting to clean them—that makes people use them. With mug-sharing, we would get the benefit of using non-disposable mugs while also maintaining the convenience factor. People would use the mugs and then put them in bins in centralized locations. Then we would collect them and bring them to Usdan or Summerfields to wash.”
Because they realize the possibility of people picking up mugs but not returning them to the centralized bins, Max and Elliott are also interested in partnering with the Eco To-Go program that Summerfields runs. Each member of Eco To-Go has a card they must hand in every time they get a container. Likewise, Max and Elliott have considered a system in which students would be required to exchange a card in order to receive a mug. The duo anticipates that the latter system would result in fewer lost items.
“It would probably make more sense to do the card system, because then you could combine Eco To-Go and your mug all on one card,” Elliott said.
Elliott’s enthusiasm for the mug-sharing program stems in part from frustration with what she sees as the University’s half-hearted approach to sustainability.
“The issue of single-use cups is something I’m passionate about,” she said. “I’m especially frustrated with Wesleyan because it’s not as sustainable as it claims to be. Even the people who manage Pi have no idea if you can recycle or compost the cups. Why are we spending all this money on things if we don’t know what the next step of their cycle is? People who control these resources have no idea what the implications of the resource use is.”
Sustainability Coordinator Jen Kleindienst has worked with students to refine their ideas for the “Introduction to Environmental Studies” final project. Though she agrees that it can be challenging to balance the ideas of the faculty, staff, and students, she stressed that she and her colleagues value student involvement in sustainability issues.
“The more input we have from students, the better the results will be,” she said. “We want students to have a hand in making Wesleyan a more sustainable place, and one of the big ways that I’m hoping to get students involved in this spring is working on rewriting the Sustainability Action Plan. We’re trying to get together a smaller group of students, faculty, and staff to work on the research part and then on writing it. It’s a plan that will set guidelines about how Wesleyan will move towards carbon neutrality.”
Royer explained that the University is serious about its pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
“In 2007, we signed onto the American College and University Presidents’ Commitment on climate change,” he said. “The main reason the Green Fund started was to achieve what we set out to do. As humans, you pick the low-hanging fruit. I’m involved with the energy sub-committee, and we’re coming to a close for the easy stuff. We have to start thinking beyond that. Getting all the way to zero will require some tough choices.”
Kleindienst emphasized the need for communication among faculty, staff, and students about these choices.
“I’ve realized that there are a lot of things happening on campus that students don’t know about or are misinformed about,” she said. “That’s something I’ve been working on: getting the most accurate and up-to-date information on the website. I’ve had four or five students asking about trying to reduce water usage for their projects, especially in dorms, by replacing the showerheads with low-flow showerheads. That’s something we did years ago. I’m sure it made the news when it happened, but then nobody continued to publicize it. We need to let students know that we’ve done this, and it’s saved a ton of water.”
Going forward, Elliott and Max are excited about their project regardless of whether it is one of the five or 10 that Royer will choose to submit to the Sustainability Office.
“We’ve done way more research than we needed to and definitely want to look into implementing it either way,” Elliott said. “By starting really small and making sure that every little bit of [the] system works, it’ll take a long time. We’ve realized that the idea is complicated, with a lot of moving parts that take a long time to figure out. It’s not so simple as, ‘Here are a bunch of mugs; let’s do it.’”
Royer agrees that moving toward a more sustainable future is far from simple, but he hopes that students won’t be deterred from trying to effect change.
“I encourage them to be their own advocates,” he said. “Just because we don’t choose a project doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing. Even if you don’t recognize it now, these three or four years you spend in college are the easiest to get things like this accomplished.”