One unintended result of our return to campus during the coronavirus era has been a massive increase in the waste that we as a community produce. Some of this new waste, of course, is necessary for our safety—the protective equipment involved in testing, for example, or the cleaning equipment used to sanitize our common spaces—but there are other areas of on-campus living wherein the heightened waste levels seem so exorbitant as to be ridiculous.
Chief among these culprits is our previously sustainably conscious cafeteria, which has undergone a severe transformation. Gone are the days of reusable Usdan cutlery and dishes. These have been replaced with individually-wrapped crackers and unlimited plastic-clad poké bowls. Immediately upon entrance, the first thing visible is the former salad station which is now host to row after row of unrecyclable plastic cups containing pudding or granola or four pieces of fruit. As you walk from the Classics station to the sandwich line, employees at every station offer you more sets of single-use utensils. An angel-faced boy staggers past saying, “I don’t know how I’m gonna get all of this home,” struggling to keep control of a veritable tower of containers, water bottles, and chocolate milk. When you’re finally done gathering your three to seven boxes of food and plastic-encased beverages, you head outside and encounter the horror that is the tricenter waste disposal system (the combined compost, recycling, and garbage bins). There are compostable containers spilling out of all three sections, no matter whether those holes were originally intended for recycling or trash. To make matters even worse, individually-wrapped syrups and sauces drip down the sides; and an entire colony of wasps seems to have found a new home buzzing around the unnecessary waste.
It seems that we’ve all inadvertently bought into the idea that being sustainably conscious is impossible during the time of corona. This problem is, of course, not Wes-specific. Concerns about COVID-19’s longevity on plastic surfaces have influenced many states to roll back single-use plastic bans, and forced many grocery stores to renounce their calls for reusable bags. Restaurants have also transitioned to using only disposable packaging for their food. These avoidable COVID-19 casualties add up: a study published in Environmental Science and Technology on the repercussions of the pandemic on plastic use predicts that in 2020, total waste will be up 30 percent from 2019.
These numbers are scary, especially in the context of the ongoing fight to save our planet from the effects of climate change. While we understand that the coronavirus has sidelined other issues such as sustainability, we’re still disappointed: the University administration seems not to have considered ways to lessen the school’s environmental footprint in order to offset the added waste created by our efforts to keep our community safe. In a single afternoon, we sat down and thought of several easy and cost-effective actions both students and administration could pursue to reduce a significant amount of waste.
One easy action that the administration could immediately take is to install more compost and recycling bins. Any casual observer can see that the bins are simply not big enough for all the trash we put in them. Consequently, the trash, compost, and recycling mix together as students pile waste above the bins, or toss compostable items into less-full receptacles. The distinctions between the bins quickly blur. Regardless of how much sorting is performed later, this inevitably leads to recyclable or compostable items ending up in the landfill. There are currently only three outdoor tricenters on campus: one outside of Usdan, one near Albritton, and one on the Pi patio. The simple solution of adding new or moving all existing tricenters to areas outside of popular eating locations would save workers unnecessary sorting labor and allow students to better separate their trash: a win-win. (While we’re on the subject, adding tricenters at ’Swings and Red and Black would make a large dent in and of itself—SO much unsorted waste goes on at both these locations due to confusing labels and lack of bin distinctions!)
In addition to combatting the overflow of waste, it’s also essential to reduce the types of waste that the University produces. Reusable cutlery and dishes may not be an option for safety reasons, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the distinction between different types of single-use material. Currently, almost every single item in Usdan is cradled in pieces of appalling plastic. Fruit, crackers and cheese, smoothies, and desserts all sit in plastic cups sealed with plastic lids. Wraps and sandwiches are encased in indestructible plastic shells. Few of these plastics are recyclable at the University. With a small investment, Usdan could switch to entirely compostable packaging—but at the very least, they should omit the unnecessary plastic lids. Foods like cupcakes and brownies could be placed on trays and handed to students with tongs. Wraps could come in paper bags or boxes. Sauces could be applied at Mongo by hand on request. While these solutions are not perfect and may cost some extra money, they aren’t going to make or break the University budget, and are certainly an improvement from the current state of things.
It is of course the University’s duty to strive to be more environmentally conscious, and until large-scale change is enacted by the administration, we will still be producing significant amounts of waste. In the meantime, there are still things students can do to reduce waste. Just because the administration fails to take action doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference!
First, stop taking the free plastic water bottles, and use your own! This may seem extremely obvious, but it is worth saying anyway. In an average year, 50 billion water bottles are purchased worldwide, and 80 percent end up in landfills where they are estimated to take literally 1,000 years to biodegrade. With COVID-19, the amount of plastic pollution has only increased. If you think that balancing your plastic water bottle on top of the overflowing recycling bins means you get to skip away from Usdan guilt-free, think again. Only one in five plastic bottles actually ends up being recycled. This is because the PET plastic that is used to produce plastic bottles is often thrown out (only 29 percent of PET ends up getting recycled in the U.S.). And if the bottle is recycled, it often ends up simply being down-cycled into single-use textiles and packaging. Most University students know how bad these seemingly insignificant bottles are for the environment, but they choose to ignore this fact when they are dying of thirst as they march out of Usdan. The solution is so simple: always keep a reusable bottle in your bag instead of taking a new plastic one every day. And, if you do happen to forget your personal bottle, opt for a canned beverage—cans are often made up of 70 percent recycled materials, and it is estimated that about 75 percent of aluminum ever produced is still in use. Amazing! So, while aluminum containers are nowhere near an environmental panacea, if you forget your water bottle, choose the canned drink.
In the same vein, whenever possible, you should try to bring a reusable personal fork, knife, and spoon. 40 billion individual plastic utensils are thrown out every year in the United States alone. (And again, COVID-19 is driving this number up.) None of these lightweight, food-covered utensils ever get recycled. They pile up in overflowing landfills, float through the ocean, and wind up mistaken for food by some poor turtle that will die a slow and painful death because you forgot a fork one day. Bringing your own utensils (and washing them after!) may seem like a hassle, but it is worth it. If you can, invest in a little pouch for your utensils that you can carry with you. Also, this should go without saying, but if you are taking food back to your house, where you presumably already have reusable cutlery, do not, under any circumstances, accept plastic utensils.
Being conscious of plastic also extends to your choice of meal. While you’re selecting your food, be aware of how much plastic you’re taking. As delicious as it might look, you don’t NEED that “Usdan cheese plate” of three Ritz crackers and a cube of cheddar in a plastic cup. Choosing dishes from the Classics, Mongolian Grill, or Vegan sections will ensure that you use as much compostable material as possible. In addition to monitoring how much plastic you’re using, it’s also a good idea to take only as much food as you know you’ll eat. It’s tempting to grab a sushi pack to have with you for later, of course; but will you really eat Usdan sushi with raw fish two days after grabbing it? Probably not! Limiting how much waste you personally produce is the most reliable way to help out, since so often, recycling does not end up where we intend it to go.
After you’re done eating, it’s good practice to take the extra minute to separate your trash. When you finish your chicken and rice, do not toss your empty plastic cup and your plastic fork (which you really should not be using, but let’s imagine that you are) into your compostable container and throw the whole package into the trash can. Instead, compost your unwanted food and the container and put the fork and the (non-recyclable!) plastic cup in the trash. Also, instead of placing waste precariously on an already-existing mountain, you can always walk to another location to compost or recycle. If you are heading to Exley, for example, compost your banana peel outside Albritton. (Check out your bin options here). These steps might take an extra second, but not only are you saving someone the hassle of having to sort through your mess, you’re also ensuring that recycling or compost does not unnecessarily end up in the already overflowing landfills.
Little choices like these might cost time and/or money, but they’re worth it. If you implement these strategies every day, you’re going to make a difference. And administration, if you are worried about the money, that cost will eventually even out: according to a study by Penn State University, the average American could save $1,236 per year by purchasing a reusable water bottle rather than purchasing plastic ones. Imagine how much money the University can save! Students: until the University makes those needed changes, try to do your part—and maybe with some luck, it will force the administration’s hand.
Hannah Berman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mia Risher can be reached at email@example.com.