From an outsider’s perspective on Wesleyan, we appear to be an extremely environmentally conscious university. Most people recycle, there is a robust residential composting program, and we incorporate alternate forms of energy into our energy systems. However, when one looks deeper, there are still large gaps in our collective attempts to lessen our environmental impact. While many students recognize the importance of small behavioral changes in reducing waste, they fail to recognize, or perhaps are entirely unaware of, the underlying challenges and pressures our current form of sustainable practices place on the University’s custodial staff. This Earth Month, it is important for students to see the connections between just labor practices and the environmental movement on our campus.
While composting efforts around campus have become increasingly visible in the past few years, the labor required to carry out these initiatives often goes unseen. For example, recycling at Wesleyan creates additional work for the custodian who takes out trash because that person has to individually rip apart every plastic bag of recycling every day. When custodial staff members don’t have time to do their jobs, they have trouble fulfilling additional demands brought by recycling and compost programs, making these programs ineffective even from a purely environmental standpoint. It is critical students can see how their small individual action, even if carried out with good and environmentally-conscious intentions, can add up to make the jobs of the custodial staff incredibly strenuous and sometimes nearly impossible. This is especially true now, as Wesleyan’s custodial management company and Wesleyan’s administration refuse to hire additional custodial staff despite worker and student demands. If the follow-through for many of the University’s sustainability efforts, which are proudly touted by the Sustainability Office, admissions, and others, fall on the shoulders of just a few overworked and exhausted custodial staff, it should not be seen as a sustainable solution. As students who care about both Wesleyan and the environment, we must not let the rights of workers at our own university be ignored.
While the Sustainability Office is excited to move forward with a project that will add an industrial compost section to many of the “Big Belly” trash and recycling bins around campus, significantly increasing the amount of waste Wesleyan diverts from Connecticut incinerators, the project comes at a time when custodial workloads are overwhelming. In order to make the expanded compost program truly sustainable, it is imperative Wesleyan hires five additional custodians. The compost interns stand with the United Student/Labor Action Coalition (USLAC) in this demand.
Maggie O’Donnell ’19, Rose Shuker-Haines ’20, and Lizzie Walsh ’19 are Wesleyan’s compost interns.