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We Are What We Waste

Opinion | November 20, 2017

Walk through Tisch on a Sunday night and you’ll see mountains of discarded coffee cups and to-go containers from Tower Café spilling over the lip of every landfill bin. You may walk by those bins without thinking twice, but each of those cups has a history.

 

Here’s one version of that story: it begins with oil extraction, maybe in the US, but quite possibly somewhere in the Middle East or South America. That crude oil is then shipped across the world to be processed in an American refinery where a byproduct is used to make plastic. That plastic is processed, shipped, and molded into your coffee cup’s lid only to be used for 30 minutes and then discarded. Not all cups are made of plastic or come from oil. Some come from natural gas or forests, but the end result is all the same––once it’s thrown away, it doesn’t disappear. “Away” does not exist.

 

The coffee cup will be disposed of by a custodian, put into a dumpster, and picked up by Republic Services. If we’re lucky, the cup was recycled and it’ll be brought to a processing plant northwest of Boston and eventually shipped to China, along with 24 percent of American recycled post-consumer content. This is the result of the United States’ attempt to balance the Sino-American trade of goods. But, in all likelihood, it wasn’t recycled and the cup will stay local. It’ll be brought to Charlestown, MA, and put into an incinerator next to a neighborhood of predominantly lower-income people of color. But that’s not what we see or think about when we throw something “away.”

 

During our time as Tufts Eco Reps and through work with other sustainability initiatives on campus, we were exposed to the fallacy of “away” and the role that honest language can play in promoting environmentalism. When waste station signage changed from “trash” to “landfill,” Tufts chose to use precise environmental language. Yet, capitalism has conned us into uncritically using language that removes human responsibility from environmental degradation, creating a cognitive dissonance between what we consume and the waste it becomes. In grocery stores, we buy beef and pork, not cow and pig; companies advertise “clean coal” that still pollutes the air, contaminates water systems, and destroys thousands of acres of forests and natural lands.

 

And while Tufts students are eager to denounce capitalism and the exploitation inherent to this system, our campus wastefulness demonstrates students’ complicity in the exploitation of our Earth. As Tina Woolston, Program Director of the Tufts Office of Sustainability, says, “Tufts is super sensitive to the words people use,” adding, “But ‘away’ just […] insinuates that [where waste ends up] isn’t near anybody.” The unfortunate truth is that “away” is a misleading stand-in for waste processing plants and dump sites that often sit next to wetlands, forests, and vital ecosystems—places where the pileup and processing of waste harms the health of the environment and the community that it sustains by lowering air quality, releasing carcinogens, and causing runoff into water systems.

 

This issue extends far beyond linguistic apathy. Our inattention to language hints at the perpetual indifference with which we treat wastefulness and the dangers of our out-of-sight, out-of-mind ethos towards our personal responsibility for waste. Waste may be a byproduct of modern living, but we can mitigate our complacency to the issue by taking intentional and effective steps that have minimal impact on our daily routines and wallets. Forgo plastic bottles, bags, and single-use coffee cups for reusable ones. Properly rinse and sort your recycling––this takes relatively little time and with the signs that accompany every waste station at Tufts, it takes almost no mental acrobatics to figure out what goes where. Use the compost in your dorm or set one up in your home. This not only helps reduce food waste, but also keeps Tufts compliant with Massachusetts law that requires institutions producing more than a ton of food waste a year to compost it. You can also avoid buying first-hand clothing and instead purchase your clothes from thrift stores and consignment shops to avoid the perils of fast fashion.

 

Taking individual action and responsibility for waste has a ripple effect across our community, evening the burden of waste and changing the campus culture towards it. According to a student who works at the Tisch circulation desk during late school-nights, students often seem unconcerned with the important work that others do to manage the waste generated on campus. The student noted that, “[While] many of us are staying up late to work on papers and complete assignments, there are many workers, who are the backbone of this institution, who have to stay up even later to clean up after us.”

 

Similarly, Bianca Hutner, president of Tufts Divest, commented on how the nature of Tufts’ waste removal procedures allows students to remain disassociated from their waste. “With all the work the janitors do,” she said, “[People living in dorms] are not conscious of all the waste they’re producing.” When we have custodial staff cleaning our dorms every day, it’s easy to turn our heads from the waste we make and even easier to turn our heads from the people who take it away.

 

Yet, increasing individual awareness and care for reducing the burden of campus waste is far from a lost cause. Tufts Labor Coalition has had a presence on our campus for over 25 years, indicating that our community values the proper treatment of our custodial staff. Furthermore, in a survey conducted by Tufts Eco Reps, 94.6 percent of the 675 respondents said they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “environmental issues are important to me.” If we care about our janitors and we care about the Earth, how have we removed ourselves from taking responsibility for our waste for so long?

 

Often, apathy towards the role that individuals can play in reducing our community’s environmental impacts stems from pointing our fingers at the faults of the university as an institution. Many complain of inconveniently placed compost bins and overflowing recycling bins—fairly noting that the infrastructure that Tufts provides for waste management often inconveniences individuals who hope to reduce their waste while neglecting the fact that these same individuals generated unnecessary waste to begin with.

 

Though Tufts as an institution has adopted many positive environmental practices—installing new solar panels on the roofs of Dowling Hall and Sophia Gordon Hall, constructing a co-generation plant—a power plant that is more efficient than normal because it uses the heat given off by energy generation to heat our buildings—and developing our food rescue program, to name a few—there is still work to be done and greater institutional support needed by campus environmental initiatives. Furthermore, the Tufts administration has committed to reducing campus waste by three percent each year. The actions that Tufts takes to support this goal are vital; despite the vast potential for individuals to impact Tufts’ waste production, institutional support is necessary to promote the success and longevity of changes spearheaded by the student body.

 

Such is the double-edged sword of most environmental issues: without the proper infrastructure from the administration, students’ actions can lack the support and framework that they require to be as environmentally-friendly as possible. Thus, reducing our campus’ environmental impact requires individuals to work concurrently on instigating systematic change and pledging individual responsibility.

 

Moreover, on a college campus, students play a vital role in molding the values that our community upholds. The popularization of reusable water bottles, two-sided printing, and food waste reduction policies in the dining halls was in-part due to the influence of a student body dedicated to changing the campus waste culture.

 

In the Office of Sustainability, Woolston has seen first-hand the essential role that students can play in shaping Tufts’ policies towards environmental issues. “[Recycling] started at Tufts as student [volunteers] who would go around and collect recycling,” she noted. While today we lack an institutional consciousness for mis-sorted recycling bins and the overuse of disposable items (coffee cups, Hodgdon containers, etc.), our community’s history proves that we have the ability to change the campus attitude towards waste.

 

It is time that we choose to notice the overflowing trash bins around campus, and recognize our individual implication in Tufts’ perpetuation of ignorant wastefulness. According to the 2017 Eco Reps Survey, two-thirds of respondents believe that the average Tufts student is only moderately concerned with questions of the environment. This lack of concern points out an unfortunate, yet optimistic, reality: our student body has so much more care, energy, and awareness that it can direct towards reducing the environmental footprint of our campus. Tufts’ three percent waste reduction goal is a noble first step in reshaping campus attitudes around waste, calling on our community to uphold our end of the bargain and to take individual ownership.