Would you believe me if I told you the invention of plastic was, in part, intended to save the earth’s wildlife? In 1869, John Wesley Hyatt responded to an offer of $10,000 from a billiards company that was looking to produce their billiards balls, customarily made of ivory, from a different, more sustainable material. Hyatt did not succeed in making the balls for this company. However, upon attempting to do so, he created a material that he later patented as ‘cellulose’; what we now know as plastic. To label Hyatt’s invention as tremendous is an understatement. For the first time in human history, our manufacturing process was not dependent on the constricts of nature. We no longer had to chop down trees, or slaughter elephants and turtles for materials (yes, plastic was thought to save the turtles)! We could now use science to create these materials exactly to our specifications. Easy enough, right? If only it could have stayed that simple. But as we now know, plastic proves to be more complicated than that. For once you produce the destructive yet revolutionary material, there’s virtually no taking it back. But more on decomposition later.
Let’s jump forward about 100 years. The first major sign of this daunting and looming dilemma we now call the environmental crisis, came from President Eisenhower in his 1955 State of the Union address, during which he introduced The Air Pollution Control Act. Although this law effectively did nothing to lower the air pollution or cease the toxic levels from increasing, his announcement warned the public of the detrimental effects pollution has on the human body and the earth; bringing awareness to a predicament that had not been thoroughly contemplated before. That is not to say everyone in the 60’s started carrying around paper straws and re-usable Whole Foods bags after Dwight gave his speech, but the environment’s well-being was becoming more widely considered. This is a good thing, right? But, as we examine the world around us today, it’s hard not to wonder: was plain awareness enough?
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. It’s easy to look back and wag our fingers at our predecessors, placing blame on their ignorant actions, only to make our ‘woke’ generation seem more, well, ‘woke’. But let’s give some credit to that generation. This was the beginning of human kind starting to understand pollution. That being said, environmental issues were still not understood in full and considered urgent. Ironically, plastic was just becoming popularized and mass produced for packaging during this time, which, as you’ve probably heard, is one of the main agitators of our earth today. Maybe you’ve seen these stats already; presumably on a re-usable water bottle or just scrolling through the news, but let’s drive it home one more time, just in case. It takes about 500- 1,000 years for plastic to decompose. Put simply without all that science-y stuff no one really understands; the bacteria that exists in the dirt that usually works to break down food for us, does not want to ingest the noxious materials that make up plastic. The dirt in the ground won’t even touch the stuff, yet we can’t get enough of it! As our society was just starting to touch the surface of environmental activism, we were simultaneously mass producing toxic waste that would lay static in our landfills, adding to the growing problem of pollution, outliving you reading this article! But, as many American tragedies begin; the money coming in from plastic was too good and the convenience it brought to the lives of Americans was even better. Granting everyone the convenience and luxury of disposable packaging and single use items seemed like a miracle at the time. With all of the money and jobs these disposable items were creating, it was hard to foresee what all of this production and convenience would build up to and how it would hurt our earth in the long run.
Flash forward to today. Our earth is in the worst shape it’s been in human history. All of our human desires, conveniences and luxuries-turned-into-necessities have collectively stripped the earth of what is has to offer us. As Americans, we produce 230 million tons of trash each year. And less than a fourth of that gets recycled. That means the rest of those millions of tons are being poured into landfills and oceans, seeping into our water supplies and killing the wild life that gets in its way. But these dismal statistics are not the final word on this problem. Recently we have seen a huge, worldwide outburst of the rejection of plastic, from those controversial paper straws I mentioned earlier, to the UN declaring a “war” on single-use plastic. This backlash has been prodigious and has no doubt made people more aware of their plastic consumption, as well as shifted the world’s view on the matter to a more serious one. A myriad of industries have recently taken a stand to collectively reduce the impact humans make on this world. From major fashion brands, to the food industry, to Greta Thunberg, the 16 year old Swedish activist who sailed to the US to meet with the UN on climate change because she refused to increase her carbon consumption by taking a plane. However, being aware of the dangers of plastic still does not rescind the comfortable lifestyle that plastic permits. And it does not undermine the trauma we would all face if this convenience was taken from us. Think about all the brands and products you love, that have made you who you are. Think about all the snacks, candies and drinks you grew up with. All of these things exist, in large part because of plastic. Even your clothes have micro fibers of plastic in them. And don’t get me started on Amazon! I think it’s safe for my generation to claim that a world without plastic would be wildly unfamiliar.
So there we have it. A very brief historical account of the plastic problem and where we are now. Yet still, no solution. Well, spoiler alert: I am not here to resolve the main issue of human kind with this university paper I am completing in my university’s library. But I am here to question it. And as I do sit here in my fancy-shmancy liberal arts school library, I find it significant to ponder my surroundings in relation to this issue. How much has this convenience I keep mentioning affected my generation? We as young people are usually looked at to advocate for the earth and rally in the streets for the turtles! But how much of the problem are we? Is it our collective actions, or the industry surrounding us that is doing the most damage? More specifically to this college campus: Is it the University’s offerings, or our personal choices that are proving to be more detrimental to the earth? Another spoiler alert, I don’t know if I found the answer to these questions. But I found it relevant enough and important enough to investigate on a small scale. As I mentioned before, my current surroundings are the library, but this location does not do the problem enough justice. For, there is only a small café-stand here, that sure enough hands out plastic to anyone with the money to buy a water bottle or an iced coffee. But, I wanted to take it up a notch. I decided to examine and dig around the school’s main cafeteria which feeds the most students on campus daily. Which, just so happens to give out plastic like candy…
It was a rainy day in Lewisburg Pennsylvania, and I, like many other students that day was trying to bow out of the stress that being on campus generates, by grabbing some food and running home to eat by myself. It was just starting to get cold outside so, naturally I checked the soups. It was tomato, which always warrants a grilled cheese. A bag of chips? Why not! And of course, I need a drink to wash down these salty treats! As I head to the register, Kimmie’s familiar and charming face asks me how I’m doing, referring to me as ‘sweetie.’ She states the amount I owe and scans my BU ID. We’ve never actually introduced ourselves, and I’m pretty sure she calls everyone in the check-out line by this term of endearment, but it still always makes me feel special and so for that, she is my favorite bison worker. As she notices my take-out containers, she immediately offers me a plastic bag; one of the many piled on top of each other at the ends of both check-out counters. I smile and nod, because I mean, it’s raining and throwing everything into a bag to walk home without performing a balancing act is too tempting. As I head for the door to begin my descent further downhill and into freedom, a small reminder catches my eye to my left. Ah, cutlery! God forbid I go through the effort of washing a metal spoon I have at home. And knowing my messy nature, I grab a handful of napkins to top the order off. So now, let’s examine the waste this one visit to the bison has produced. One plastic to go container, (which, can we please acknowledge are obnoxiously large?) one water bottle, one plastic soup container (which is always the only option even if you are dining in), one bag of chips, a plastic spoon (!!!!), paper napkins (I haven’t touched on paper. Simply put, it’s better than plastic but still an irritant to the earth) and lastly, the plastic bag (which I always rationalize in my head that it’s OK to take, because I re-use them in my miniature pink trash bin that collects mostly tissues and clothing tags in my room). Can you relate to at least one of these harmful acts? Are you feeling guilty yet?
If so, it may comfort you (but not the earth) to know, that you are not alone. As I asked around among my peers, I found that many share my habits when taking food to-go (i.e producing a lot of waste). Interestingly, I also found that dining in poses its own set of problems. When taking your order to go, you presumably throw all that plastic in the trash bin you have most readily available in your dorm or off-campus house. Unless you make it a point to separate your garbage as a college student, and if that’s the case, hats off to you my friend. But there exists a different attitude while discarding your trash in the bison. Perhaps it stems from the extremely daunting and unexplained separate bins that exist adjacent to one another. One grey bin labelled ‘trash’ and one blue, labelled ‘recycle’… But what does ‘recycle’ mean? When I asked a group of 7 senior girls how they separate their trash when eating in the bison, they collectively became visually frustrated. It was clear they were all struggling with recycling, but had never spoken about it before, perhaps due to feelings of guilt. There were a lot of raised eyebrows, nodding heads and pointed fingers in agreement, to give you a visual. “I think about it, but it’s a lot of effort to remove all of the food from the recyclable items” one girl admitted. “Yeah, I usually just put everything into one bin,” another agreed. There is a trend here. Everyone knew they were doing something wrong, but they didn’t quite know the correct course of action. We know recycling is the right thing to do. Maybe because of the small sign above one of the trash stations that sarcastically reads, “you got into this school. You should be smart enough to recycle,” or maybe because of that catchy phrase that has been drilled into our heads: ‘reduce, reuse, recycle! But if no knows the proper way to recycle, what’s the point of these separate bins? It seems the common attitude is to try recycling, and when that fails, well, at least the effort was there. But what about the reduce part of that catchy phrase? The same effort and thought that is put into recycling, must also be put into reducing consumption. Wouldn’t it be more effective and sustainable of the University to cut the amount of single use plastic available in the bison, instead of simply providing an essentially arbitrary second trash bin? I wanted concrete answers to these questions, so I started digging.
After asking around among the bison workers who would be the most appropriate person to pose such questions concerning the bison’s sustainability, I was told by various people to email dining services. I received a response 2 days later from Victor Udo, the director of campus sustainability. After apologizing for responding late to my email, due to his trip to the Spokane for AASHE conference, which is described on their website as “tackling the root cause for the continued rise in carbon emissions: our dysfunctional economic system” (seems worthwhile), he told me: “the Bison Café is a key part of our facilities. We are in the process of developing a sustainability certification checklist for our offices/classrooms, housing, events and dinning”. Ok, sounds promising. Perhaps this is the reason there is still plastic all over campus. Since they are still “in the process”. At least they are discussing the matter. When I posed a question in a follow up email specifically inquiring about the plastic cutlery, things got a bit more interesting. Victor responded saying, “President Bravman has articulated the need to eliminate single use plastic on campus next year”. I was a bit disappointed with this response. I think we would all agree there is a need, but are there plans in place to do so? I also received a separate email directly addressing the specific concern of plastic cutlery from Ken Ogawa, who is the Associate Vice President of Facilities and Sustainability for the University. He writes, “This (plastic cutlery) has been a challenge for our team. We have evaluated switching to silverware, but have been unable to due to dishwashing limitations. Also, we have been unable to switch to compostable plastics since that material requires a large, commercial composting facility in order to reach the temperatures needed to decompose. Unfortunately, there isn’t a composting facility in this geographic area that meets this requirement”. Fair enough, that is something out of their control. But I still felt unsatisfied by these interactions. I wanted more information.
It turns out, Bucknell has an entire webpage dedicated to Sustainable Dining, which is, “committed to providing a dining program that embraces the concept of sustainability”. Perhaps they are embracing the concept, but have not wrapped their arms all the way around it. But after browsing this page, I learned some new information, and so I must apologize and correct myself for some statements made above. The napkins made available in the bison are made from recycled materials and unbleached, granting them some extra points with mother nature. Also, the plastic bags that Kimmie so readily hands out are in fact bio-degradable, meaning the bacteria we discussed before will eat this kind of plastic. The rest of the page, though, proved to be quite vague. I learned about the local and sustainable sources the University gets their food from, which is extremely important and relevant to going green (and eased my mind about some of the foods made available to us. Ehem, library sushi?). But I wanted more on plastic. There were many mentioned efforts put in place to reduce waste for the Bostwick Marketplace (the caf), such as, reusable to go containers and glassware. That is all great, but the caf is mostly designated for first years, and doesn’t feed as many people as the Bison, which is flooded with single use plastic. Where are the efforts for the largest and most relevant dining service?
It seems as though the topic of plastic is something being actively discussed among the higher up officials of this institution, but a solution is yet to be found. Perhaps not all of the blame needs to be placed on the University, for there are some legitimate logistical problems, as brought up by Ken. Yes, this frustrates me. But I also want to make clear that I realize I am simply a student here probing at a specific issue I deem important, and in no way do I understand the lengths and capacity it takes to feed an entire college campus, let alone do it sustainably. But I’m being a stickler because I know a college campus with less waste than Bucknell is possible, and it starts with the University’s actions, which trickle down and seep into the attitudes of the students.
Let’s take a trip across the country to liberal-hippie-dippy-land. Also known as, Berkley, California. If you’ve never visited the bay area or UC Berkeley, I think it’s safe to say this buzzing college town is the polar opposite of Lewisburg, PA. Think: radical student protests (thousands-of –students-running-across-campus-butt-naked type radical), a huge student body (around 31,000 undergrads, which naturally means way more diversity) and a rich, regional history for sustainability. It just so happens my two very best friends go to UC Berkeley, and I thought it would be opportune to ask them a few questions about their cafeteria’s sustainability. My friend Melanie explained to me over a facetime call that, “everything on campus is reusable. Every café has cups you can borrow and return to be washed and composting is a regular thing”. Impressive. But what she said about the climate of the student body proved to be even more impressive. “People on campus give you major dirty looks if you’re even carrying a plastic water bottle. No one does that. And you have to specifically ask for a plastic straw and top for your coffee at any of the campus cafés, which is also always frowned upon. They come in paper cups with no lids”. Because the school has engrained sustainability into campus life, the students hold each other responsible and consider reducing waste a daily, necessary part of their lives. Can we as Bucknell students say the same? The actions made by the campus are synonymous with the feelings of the student body, which allows for their success. So much success, that the university is officially committed to zero waste by 2020. If a bigger school than ours can do it, why can’t we?
I admit, UC Berkley is a very extreme example. We have to take into consideration that California has many more resources to use and depend on, mainly because the state had to be set up like this due to limited resources. We don’t have that type history here in Central, PA. But it’s worth mentioning, and taking note of, for both our institution and the student body. If the school is not doing much about it yet, the only thing we can do to make a change is change ourselves. And so, I leave you with this: Ask for your library iced coffee sans top and straw next time. Use a paper plate even if you’re taking it to go. Wash that metal fork to save a plastic one. We could all put a little more pressure on each other as a campus to alleviate the pressure we place on our earth. Source samantharuvolo.com