Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.
Saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increase in the amount of waste on campus is an understatement. Throughout the first several weeks of the fall semester, outdoor trash bins were overflowing with single-use dining waste, mainly plastic bags containing single-use takeout containers and plastic utensils. Because of safety restrictions, indoor dining space is limited and thus takeout has become the new normal. Keeping us safer has meant creating more waste, but does it have to?
According to Cindy Stearns, assistant director of marketing, Dining Services efforts to address this issue include the distribution of more than 1,500 reusable bags for takeout. This response is a major win for sustainability efforts on campus, but there is still much work to be done. The waste crisis caused by the pandemic is an opportunity to make systemic changes to the way that the UR community deals with waste on a personal and institutional level.
The bigger implication of the new reusable bag program is that individual actions matter in the fight for a more environmentally sustainable campus. It is easy to get caught up in the idea that whatever one person does for the environment isn’t going to make a difference. I am familiar with the sense of hopelessness that no matter what we as individuals do — take shorter showers, use less plastic and turn off our lights — the world needs bigger actions to address major issues like climate change.
Although it is true that recycling your La Colombe coffee can isn’t going to solve the world’s problems, I have come to the conclusion that small actions do matter. A change in campus attitudes towards environmental sustainability starts at the individual level.
For example, when you start using a green box at the dining hall your friend might ask you where you got the box, or why you decided to join the HDC to-go program. If you tell them how the program works or say that you are doing it to be less wasteful, you might inspire your friend to do the same. The impact can be exponential. Although not everyone is going to follow your example, chances are that you can get at least one other person thinking about how to reduce their environmental impact.
Adopting a sustainable lifestyle does not have to be about being perfect, going entirely zero waste or only eating vegan for the rest of your life (though for some people it is). A sustainable lifestyle could be about being more mindful about how your actions impact the environment and reducing that impact where you can.
The individual steps we take can lead to collective action that can reshape UR's campus. In 2019, University of Richmond President Ronald Crutcher signed UR’s six-year sustainability plan, which affirms UR’s commitment to sustainability in all aspects of campus life. Although the standards and goals outlined in this plan provide a framework for improvement on campus, students need to continue to push the administration to move quickly in implementing the goals
At UR, we may not feel the steady rise in global temperatures in our day-to-day lives, but there is evidence all over the world of the devastating impact it is making on the lives of others. January 2020 started off with the worst bushfire in Australia’s history, which displaced and killed almost three billion animals. Today, wildfires continue to tear through California, displacing thousands of families and burning down their homes. Although we on the East Coast may not be personally affected by those events, issues like sea-level rise and urban heat islands hit much closer to home. We need to start acting now by holding our institution responsible.
The reusable bag program was born in response to student concerns, said Terry Baker, director of Dining Services. This is a great example of students’ voices being heard by UR administration. After hearing student complaints, Dining Services was swift in ordering 3,000 reusable bags for students, faculty and staff. Resources such as the Office for Sustainability, Green UR and the Richmond and Westhampton college student government associations are great places to share your concerns and get connected with students and faculty who will work to find solutions.
Of course, not every problem has an easy fix, and sometimes you must fight harder to be heard. If we want more local food on campus, for example, we can’t snap our fingers and have hundreds of pounds of produce from local farmers by tomorrow. However, there is no way to succeed without trying.
Waste on campus goes further than plastic bags. When we create waste — whether that be dining-ware that gets thrown away after one use, food that isn’t eaten, the excess energy used by all of our different appliances — we are doing more harm than meets the eye.
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Take the example of continuously taking more food than you need from the dining hall. You might think that the food you waste doesn’t matter because it was going to be thrown away anyway. But when hundreds of students have this same mindset, the demand for food at the dining hall stays higher than it should. That means more energy used to cook food that isn’t eaten, more transportation and gasoline emissions used to bring that food to the dining hall and more money that could have been allocated to another area.
When we waste something, we fail to consider all the resources we are giving up. Climate change is one of the largest challenges our world faces. It is our responsibility as Spiders and global citizens to do all we can to fight against this crisis. Our personal actions and the collective actions taken by our campus leaders are both needed to make the difference we all deserve.
Contact contributor Sarah Murtaugh at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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